Stay calm, beat stress this holiday season

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- The holidays are an interesting time of year. On one hand, advertisements urge us to flock to the stores and spend, spend, spend on a whole lot of stuff that the recipients of our gifts don't really need (and maybe don't even want). On the other hand, charitable organizations ramp up their requests for donations to support those who are less fortunate than we are.

Many messages suggest that we're supposed to spend all of our waking hours with friends and family, while others tell us that we're also supposed to spend lots of quality time with our most special loved ones. Military leadership encourages us to get away from the rigors of military life for a short time while still remembering that we're in the military and acting accordingly. And the news media won't let us forget that our economy is in crises and that we have a presidential transition underway.

All of these apparently mixed and anxiety-provoking messages and expectations can add to an already stressful season. We all know that when we are experiencing negative stress, we are more likely to make bad decisions. So here are a few thoughts to help you reduce that stress and hopefully out of trouble.

First, have realistic expectations about the holidays. The holidays can be a lot of fun, but don't expect your experience to be like what we see on TV and at the movies. Very few of us have white Christmases, and almost none of us sees a horse-drawn sleigh jingling its bells as it glides by our pristine winter ranch. Those images and ideas are not reality, and a quick look around you will prove that. Consider all the good things you have going for you, and be grateful for them. Don't let the entertainment and advertising industries dictate your concept of the ideal holiday.

Part of managing expectations is realizing that not everything is perfect. For example, remember that while we enjoy seeing friends and family, there is also stress related to those visits, whether it's sleeping on the cold floor with the dog that aggravates your allergies because all the beds are taken, or putting up with family members you don't particularly like. Another example: remember that if you're one of the lucky ones who gets snow on Christmas, that snow may wreak havoc on your travel plans. If you can keep these realities in perspective, you're more likely to enjoy the upsides to the holidays and not be frustrated by any downsides.

Second, develop good, healthy plans to deal with the season's activities. If you're buying gifts, spend only what you can truly afford (and don't forget to plan for unexpected expenses when deciding what you can afford). It won't make you happy to spend beyond your means now, only to have to deal with a mountain of debt later. (Keep in mind that many credit card companies are actively looking for any reason to charge fees and raise interest rates, and they don't always have to notify you in advance. So be very careful when paying with plastic.) The current state of the economy gives you a perfect justification for establishing a habit of smart holiday spending.

If you're traveling and visiting family, don't forget to carve out time for yourself. If your family (especially your parents and grandparents) are like most, they'll want to spend every waking moment with you. If you let them know in advance that you have to do some things without them, they'll be less disappointed and more understanding, and you'll have a better chance at keeping your sanity.

Also, keep in mind that unwinding from the rigors of military life this time of year shouldn't create its own stress. The emphasis is on healthy stress relief. Trying to relieve stress in unhealthy ways is only going to make things worse. There are many ways to constructively deal with stress. Keep in mind that you're a military member, subject to military rules and regulations 24/7/365.

Just because your civilian friends can do something and get away with it doesn't mean you can. I'm referring specifically about underage drinking, drinking to excess, drinking and driving, and illegal drug use. But I'm also referring to any activities that are criminal or that can make the Air Force look bad.

Also, even if our society has deemphasized the spiritual or communal aspect of the holidays, you don't have to. Practice your faith, volunteer your time to do good things for others, donate money to charity, or all of the above. You're not going to solve the world's problems singlehandedly during the holidays, but you can help with the effort. Doing so can help relieve stress and make you feel good, all while benefiting others and reinforcing the holiday spirit.

Finally, maintain your situational awareness. The military teaches us to look out for each other, so keep an eye out for people who show signs of depression or stress and talk to them. You may be the only one who notices someone in that position - the civilian world typically doesn't teach these skills - so you may have a unique opportunity to truly show some holiday spirit. Also, don't be afraid to elevate or share your concerns with other as appropriate. It's much better to be safe than sorry, and I've never heard of anyone being truly upset that someone else showed that kind of concern.

But don't just keep an eye out for others: look in the mirror during the holidays and keep an eye on yourself. If you're feeling depressed or stressed, don't keep it bottled up. Deal with stress the right way. Talk to someone about it and get the help you need. There's no shame in recognizing a problem and taking steps to solve it. In fact, we expect military members to do just that. And don't be worried about your career. If you're proactive, you're probably going to help your career.

The holidays can be a lot fun, but they can also be stressful. You can help decrease the stress and increase your enjoyment by managing your expectations, dealing with stress in constructive ways, and by looking out for yourself and others.

The legal office offers legal assistance to help reduce some of your stress - whether it's holiday related or not. Call 654-3203 for more details or an appointment. Here's hoping you have the best holiday season yet!