Managing your holiday stress

by Mark Oswell, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
Stripes Korea
Having family over for a meal, decorating the house and finding the perfect gifts are typical of the holiday season. To some these activities are times to be enjoyed with family and friends; to others they represent dreaded tasks that add more stress to their daily lives.
During this very stressful time of year, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center providers have a variety of treatment options to provide effective and individualized care to help beneficiaries handle stress.
According to the Department of Defense’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), stress is unavoidable and can be helpful or harmful. 
“It is normal to experience stress in life. However, sometimes the stressors can become overwhelming, leading to a physical reaction to stress,” explained Army Maj. Kathleen Young, WRNMMC Psychiatry Continuity Service (PCS) chief. “This physical reaction, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, allows for humans to respond quickly to potential ‘life-threatening’ situations. Prolonged periods of stress keep the body wired, which can take a toll on one’s health and cause anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. Learning how to recognize the stress response and using healthier coping mechanisms can improve your overall health,” Young explained.
To take control of the holiday season and reduce holiday stress level, Young and Dr. Georica Gholson, PCS clinical psychologist, recommend the following tips:
  1. Set realistic financial goals for gift giving.
  2. Practice forgiveness. Acknowledge past feelings, and let go of the past.  
  3. Try to remember that holidays don’t have to be perfect.  
  4. Get organized.  Engage your family in helping you, so that tasks can be managed with help.  
  5. Practice Mindfulness.  Spend a few minutes alone, practice deep breathing, stop and enjoy your life. Utilize your five senses to keep yourself grounded to the present. 
  6. If you are deployed or away from your family during the holiday season, seek out the USO or other service organizations. Most have resources available to stay connected. 
  7. Set boundaries in discussing specific distressing topics. 
  8. If the chance of family conflict is high, it may be worthwhile to consider a hotel stay.
Army Chaplain (Capt.) Andrew Braswell, chaplain clinician/senior pastor Protestant Chapel congregation at WRNMMC, explained how faith helps in dealing with holiday stress. “Spirituality helps people see there is something greater than themselves. It helps put things in perspective and gives people hope.”
He added that during the holidays, people sometimes will feel drawn to religious activities including worship services, family practices, personal devotional reading, prayer and meditation.
“Holidays are especially difficult because everything is supposed to be joyous, good and wonderful, but when you are in the hospital your mind is plagued with feeling of pain and distress,” added Navy Chaplain (Cmdr.) Harvey Macklin, WRNMMC Bioethics chaplain. “During this time people call out for assurance and care especially when family or loved ones are unable to be here for them. It is common to receive extra calls from people who are just lonely, emotionally down or angry. This is our time to remind them that this truly is a season of love and compassion.”
To support these needs, the WRNMMC chaplains offers a variety of religious services for Christmas, Hanukkah and Islamic worshippers. 
“The cause of stress varies, from missing loved ones who have died and are no longer here to celebrate with us, to the overwhelming feelings of the need to purchase gifts for others versus maybe paying a bill,” explained Asia Phillips, program manager for Resiliency and Psychological Health Service at WRNMMC. “Even the stress of having to work during the holiday and not being able to take time off to spend with loved ones can cause strain during this time,” she said.
“For many, stress is like drowning; all you want to do is breathe but it is the one thing that escapes you. It forces you to panic and attempt to over reach what is possible in the moment,” added Macklin. “In a low moment in my life I was given a great mantra ‘This moment, this step, this day.’ I cannot tell you how many times I have held tight to these words, forcing myself to not over reach my situation.”
The Department of Defense also provides numerous on-line support for service members, including: Military OneSource or (800-342-9647); CHAMP; the Military Crisis Line (800-273-8255 or text 838255) and several smart phone applications that allow individuals manage their anxiety, cope with stress and overcome their bouts of depression.

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