Holiday stress reduction begins with you

  • Published
  • By Paula Spooner
  • Family advocacy outreach manager
Ahh, the holidays. It's the season of twinkling lights and favorite carols, carefully selected gifts and visits with those we love. Unfortunately, for many of us, it's also several straight weeks of stress. Every year I tell myself that next year I'm going to handle the shopping differently -- I'll plan ahead and purchase throughout the year instead of postponing until I absolutely cannot put it off any longer. But I never do.

Despite my admittedly poor planning strategy, I can pass on some lessons I've learned for managing stress.

If you can't control it, don't worry about it. Sure, there are an unlimited number of things you could stew about -- disrupted plane schedules, whether Uncle Bob will act out in front of your in-laws or if anyone will actually eat what you bring to the potluck. But as the saying goes, "Worrying is like a rocking chair -- it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere."
So before you tie yourself up in knots over possible outcomes or what other people do or think, ask yourself this question, "Can I force this person, weather or situation to perform as I demand?" Usually you can't. Then ask yourself, "Can I control my own response to this person, weather or situation?" The answer is yes. You can allow it to control you, or you can choose to let it go, and thus maintain your own inner peace. This actually makes you a stronger person.

It's okay not to be perfect. Imperfection is often more interesting. When my oldest daughter was about six she went through a hat-wearing phase. Her absolute favorite was an enormous, white, floppy-brimmed disaster that she wore with everything -- shorts, jeans, bathing suits and even pajamas. Planning some professional family photos as gifts, I hid the hat in my closet, got the excited kids ready, and set off. I thought the session went surprisingly well. Two weeks later I went into the studio to review the proofs. In every single one, my daughter stood behind me with her small hand on my shoulder, a smug smile on her face, and that hat affixed firmly to her head. How she managed to smuggle it in and out without my knowledge still remains a mystery. But I do know this: to this day, those photos remain my most cherished family portraits of all time. They created a distinct and lasting memory, and tell a wonderful story about my daughter, her persistence, and our family.

Examine the expectations of yourself, others and the season itself to make sure you're staying realistic. The media would have us believe that if we spend lots of money, drink sparkling beverages, consume rich food, drive the finest cars and dress in the latest styles we will have gloriously fulfilling holiday season and never feel the pinch of over-spending. Sounds great, but it's not reality. Reality is about limits and constant change. So even though circumstances may have permitted a certain amount of spending, travel or entertaining last year, it simply may not be the same this year. And next year could be different still. Life fluctuates, plans adjust and people cope. Kids might complain, but they ultimately respond to the functioning of their parents, so the better the adults handle stress, the better the kids manage.

It's perfectly fine to say "no". The older I get, the easier it becomes for me to set limits. If you don't want to attend a party, politely send your regrets. If you absolutely feel obligated, put in a quick appearance and then make your exit. Don't feel like baking this year? Buy some holiday treats, or simply skip them. Does itseem that your kids push your guilt button more heavily around the holidays? Know this: kids actually benefit from being told no, especially when it comes to setting limits about material possessions. So look at it this way: when you kindly but firmly say no, you are being a good parent, and also serving as a healthy role model for the other adults in your life that need practice setting their own boundaries. They will look at you and think, "Wow, I should do that."

Take time every day to care for yourself. This doesn't require spa visits and expensive dinners on the town; in fact, short but frequent pockets of quiet that we carve out of the day can do the most to rejuvenate us.

For example, my job requires me to frequently travel between Arnold Annex and the 81st Medical Group. If I drive I'll arrive in two minutes, but then I must search for a parking spot and immediately resume my fast-paced day. But if I choose to walk over, it's a seven minute break from computers, phones, emails and best of all -- I won't have to look for a parking place. It's a chance to think, breathe deeply, and get a tiny amount of exercise.

Seek out these opportunities throughout the day. Eating well, getting adequate sleep, exercising and relaxing are very significant factors to staying balanced during stressful days. You know what works for you, so practice it. If you lack the discipline, make a commitment with your partner or a friend and agree to keep tabs on each other.

For more ideas on healthy stress management practices, contact one of the many agencies here at Keesler. The mental health flight, Airman and family readiness center and health and wellness center are all here to help make your holiday the smoothest one yet.

For more information call 228-376-3457.