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Beating holiday stress by choosing happiness

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Comprehensive Airman Fitness emphasizes the wingman concept of Airmen and families taking care of themselves and each other, and empowers Airmen to hold each other accountable through Air Force core values. This commentary showcases the Mental Pillar.

While kids become more excited by the day, holiday preparation isn't necessarily as pleasant for grown-ups. 

With shopping, traveling, deadlines, out-of-town guests and increased social demands on already limited time, even the most relaxed people can flare.  And if you happen to be entering the holiday season already stressed out -- because of single parenting, deployment stress, caring for extended family members -- you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, manipulated or even resentful of those added demands.

But, as my dad used to say, "Just hold the phone." 

Family advocacy offers a variety of classes on base and, despite the seemingly disparate topics, they do share a common skill: conflict management. 

Conflict, defined here as "a mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs," would thus be any experience that results in stress, anger, anxiety, fear or sense of injustice. 

Although we may not realize it, we actually create conflict because we shape our own realities. We perceive and interpret the world through our own set of beliefs, which in turn have been created -- and continually influenced -- by past experiences, parental teachings, values, religious upbringing and so on.

Instead of the familiar saying, "I'll believe it when I see it," it's more accurate to say, "I'll see it when I believe it." This is because when we have a belief, for example, that people in general cannot be trusted, we constantly scan the actions of others to justify our beliefs.
And we nearly always find them, because, while we are assessing our environment for evidence to substantiate our views, we simultaneously miss any information that just might prove our beliefs to be wrong. Our focus has become too narrow; we will always find what we look for.

Therefore, if our belief system is that we are powerless, that we are at the "mercy" of others, we will be.

Other people will "make us" angry. Unreasonable or unfair demands on our time may highly annoy us, but we still likely won't say no.

Past events, particularly negative or painful ones, will continue to threaten our present and future sense of peace. But by learning to step back, reframe and then deliberately respond to the events in our lives in beneficial ways, we can reclaim control. We will choose our own path.

Physician and Ph.D Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a best-selling book called Man's Search for Meaning, in which he detailed his brutal experiences in the concentration camps.  All but one family member died in the camps and throughout the three years of his imprisonment he observed as his fellow detainees one by one succumbed to death. He noted that when minds and spirits gave in, the physical bodies quickly followed. The single most significant protective factor for survival was actively maintaining a purpose in life. 

A famous quote from his bookstates: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness."

Think about it. 

No matter what life hands us -from a rude customer service rep to the experience of a devastating trauma - we each have the personal power to determine exactly what response we will make to any particular event. We decide if we will react in anger or kindness, if we will succumb to or resist the temptation of complacency, if we will choose satisfaction or discontent. We personally determine whether we are to become a victim or a survivor.      

I'm not saying that it's always easy to reframe thinking and choose positivity.

I've been working with a bright young Airman who is juggling an incredible number of stressful life events. One of his more troubling worries is an upcoming separation from the Air Force and the free-fall feeling of a future that he once regarded as solid.  I suggested that from my perspective it was an unprecedented opportunity. He looked skeptical.

I urged him to think for a moment about how in the future he might be able to use the lessons learned, the wisdom of his current painful experiences to reach out and help others.

I encouraged him to look at this not as an end but as a beginning to start clarifying goals, whatever he might choose to do with his life. He looked surprised, then thoughtful, then hopeful. The holiday season is a perfect time to start choosing positivity.

Take care of your body, spirit and mind by being selective about what you put into it. When you need to, say "no."  When you are out, smile at others for no reason. Teach your kids the meaning of giving by "adopting" a family; let them select, wrap and deliver the presents.  Take the time to pull that heavy box down from the top shelf for the frustrated mom at the toy store. Let another car in ahead of you - no one is moving anyway. Do an anonymous kindness. 

Does Christmas tend to bring back not-so-great childhood memories? Now may be the time to start realizing that those past experiences, while they cannot be erased, do not define you.

So detach and rewrite the present with kindness, gentleness and acceptance.

There are an endless number of ways to be more positive.

For specific skill-building, call Paula Spooner at 228-376-3459 to sign up for "Fortify Your Life:  A Class for Women."