The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but let’s face it, sometimes they can be tough. And sometimes they can turn into a full-blown stress bomb.
There’s the stuff that everyone has to deal with — the typical civilian holiday headaches that range from the hunting and gathering of presents to family feuding, and then there’s the stress that only those in the military will know.
Here are some tactics and techniques to help you navigate those high-tension holiday minefields and defuse those stress bombs.
1. Find the funny. Try to find the humor in your crazy in-laws, the burned turkey or whatever holiday curveballs get thrown at you. Laughter is a great way to defuse tension and cope with stress.
“Have fun with things,” says Air Force Master Sgt. Mark Diehl, a first sergeant at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. “Try to find the positive in any situation.”
2. Cool off before things get heated. When holiday stress gets high, tensions can flare even in the best of marriages and relationships. When things get heated, good communication strategies are key, Diehl says.
“Taking a cool-down period is probably the best thing I know to do,” he says. “Take a step away before things reach a boiling point.”
A little timeout can “maybe help you realize that it wasn’t quite as serious as where the conversation was going,” he added.
If not, “then seek out some help,” he says, whether it’s from a trusted mutual friend or, if necessary, more professional resources through your chain of command.
3. Keep reasonable bedtimes for kids. “Lack of sleep can turn into drama, and then that can create friction between the parents,” says Diehl, who has two daughters, ages 8 and 10. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way.
“When our two girls were younger, we kept things pretty strict, but as they’ve gotten a little bit older, we’ve been a little more flexible during holiday breaks. But there have been a couple of times where we’ve let them stay up later than we probably should have, and that turns into drama the next day with their attitudes.”
4. Amp up the exercise. It’s the holidays. You want to chill out, watch the game, eat some turkey. PT can wait until you’re back from leave, right? Maybe, but remember: Exercise is the great equalizer when stress is high.
“Exercising really allows you to work through the stress reaction. It will help you sleep better at night, but it will also keep your energy up. It’s a great way to relieve tension,” says Dr. David Barry, a clinical psychologist with the Defense Department’s Deployment Health Clinical Center.
So knock out some pushups at halftime or go for a run before the big turkey dinner.
5. Ease off the booze. With all of the parties and gatherings, some of that holiday cheer often comes in a bottle. Sometimes too much. Have a few drinks, if you want, but be smart about it.
“Excessive drinking for males is having five or more drinks on one occasion. For women, it’s four or more. And no more than 14 drinks per week for men and seven for females,” Barry says. “During this time of year, people tend to exceed those amounts, which can lead to risky behaviors and get people in trouble.”
6. Embrace the suck. In 1976, a young Marine sergeant named Jerome Cwiklinski was working his first Christmas as a guard at the U.S. Embassy in Austria. Vienna may be one of the most picturesque places you could spend Christmas, but Cwiklinski wouldn’t have known it. He was miserable, stuck in a cold, lonely guard post without so much as a strand of tinsel in sight.
Now one of the Navy’s top chaplains, he looks back on that Christmas as one of his best ever.
“People say they want to cut through the tinsel and glitter to get to the real meaning of the season,” says now-Capt. Cwiklinski. “The military can help you do that because there are times when you are stationed in places where it just doesn’t exist.”
Embrace those moments, he says.
“Those challenging times can form some of your best memories of the holidays because it forces you to reflect on what it is you are actually celebrating. In the future, the memory of those sacrifices you made are cherished. When you had very little, you were doing a lot to ensure your fellow Americans could celebrate their holidays in peace.”
7. Find a faith community. No matter what time of year it is, finding the right faith community can be particularly challenging in an always-on-the-go military. But that can be especially important during the holidays.
Although chaplains come from particular denominations, part of their job is to help troops and their families connect with what works for them, says Cwiklinski, an Orthodox priest and force chaplain for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific.
“We are a referral resource,” he says. “It sometimes helps to talk that out with their chaplain, to tell them, ‘This is what I’m used to — this is what we did back home.’ Just having those conversations can help them embrace whatever is available.”
If you’re deployed, it may not be much, but a chaplain may be able to connect you with others from your faith tradition whom you aren’t aware of. If nothing else, consider bringing a touchstone of your faith — anything from prayer books to a Bible — that will help you connect to the spiritual side of the holiday season on your own. At larger installations, even downrange, there’s often no shortage of faith groups that might be a good fit for you, Cwiklinski says.
8. Keep family traditions. Growing up, the old holiday classics were a must in Betsy Vial’s home.
Now an Army spouse at Fort Benning, Ga., Vial says tuning in to those old favorites helps her tune out the holiday stress.
“I’m from Faribault, Minnesota, so ‘White Christmas’ from ‘The Andy Williams Christmas Album’ is a must, especially since I’m stationed in a place with no snow. If I play this album while I decorate, I feel like I’m back at home,” she says. “The best advice I can offer military families is to find ways to keep the family traditions from their childhoods alive. We can recapture the magic we felt back home and share that feeling with our children even though we have a nomadic way of life.”
9. Tweak your traditions. Army Sgt. James and Melissa Langley always made it a point to get family pictures taken during the holidays to send to family and friends.
When James was deployed through the holidays, however, Melissa tweaked that tradition by bringing a big, framed picture of her husband along for the photo shoot with their daughter.
“I held his portrait so that he knows he is not forgotten, and our friends and family don’t forget him,” she says.
Some military families create “flat daddies and mommies,” life-size headshots of deployed troops that can take their own seat at the holiday table and then move into the living room when it’s time to open presents.
10. Create new traditions. Army Cpl. Paul Caiafa and his family have been stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, for the past few years. Rather than focus on how much they missed their friends and family back in the states, they’ve learned to focus on those around them instead. Their new holiday traditions include cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for the single soldiers who have not gone back home, donating to a local charity and visiting wounded troops at the military medical center in Landsthul.
“It has done wonders for our hearts,” says his wife, Sarah. “It’s given my children lessons of giving back, and all the while, our Army family is with us.”
11. Get creative with presents. Get brave and get real about money with the extended family.
Especially if finances are tight — or even if they’re not — consider creative alternatives to the usual gift exchanges.
“If you have a large, extended family coming over, you can always make the suggestion of a ‘secret Santa’-type gift exchange. That can help make the gathering fun and not financially burdensome,” says Dana Lee, a licensed clinical social worker with the military.
Or you can make presents. If your brother loves barbecue sauce, find a great recipe and make him a jar instead of buying something expensive. Or craft a handwritten letter to each of your loved ones telling specific reasons why you love them. They’ll treasure that present more than anything you could buy them.
“I’ve worked with service members who’ve sat down together with the kids and made a scrapbook or photo album. It’s not only a final product, but also the experience — collecting the photos, sharing stories — that people will remember.”
12. Apply lessons learned. Sometimes the holiday season can feel more like a Halloween nightmare with the same cycle of stressors coming back to haunt you year after year. Take a page from your military playbook and do a thorough lessons-learned drill from previous years and try to figure out how you can do things better this time around.
“When you’re making plans for the holiday season, you can apply those lessons learned to figure out the best way forward when engaging your friends and family,” says Lee, who has worked with troops and families at Fort Hood, Texas, and is now with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Outreach Center.
Mentally review the last family holiday and consider what worked, what didn’t and what has changed since. Then adjust.
13. Enlist help dealing with troublemakers. Civilians can say some pretty stupid stuff. Whether it’s old Uncle Harry on another Thanksgiving dinner political rant or the over-curious brother-in-law who wants to know about all of the people you’ve killed, even well-meaning friends and family back home can be tough to deal with.
Barry, who has worked with troops and families at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., and Fort Belvoir, Va., once had a client with a family member who wanted to know about the gory details of combat. Over turkey.
An ally “can help deflect and defuse those situations before they happen, or at least help extract you from those circumstances and get to a different part of the party,” Barry says.
Whether it’s your wife or your mom or old buddy, recruit an ally who will help watch out for those moments and then redirect that crazy uncle or brother-in-law when the conversation gets weird.
14. Do a vector check. You don’t have to have post-traumatic stress or be suffering from depression to get hit with a nasty case of the holiday blues.
“We will always have the holiday blues. There’s all kinds of things that can contribute, whether it be something financial, or you’re not taking care of yourself, or all of the pressure to perform and attend parties,” Barry says.
Try to be mindful of how you’re interacting with people and how you feel about yourself.
“I call it doing a vector check,” Barry says. “You kind of lick your finger and see which way the wind is blowing. It’s just another way of asking yourself, ‘Am I going the right direction?’”
15. Find balance in the new normal. The holidays became a different experience after Army Maj. Ed Pulido got back from Iraq. The wounds — both mental and physical — inflicted by the roadside bomb blast make it hard for him to be around big groups of people.
“It’s helpful to keep a balance between socializing and down time with my family, and by knowing my triggers, I’m able to avoid stressful situations and better cope when they do arise,” says Pulido, now retired and working with the Folds of Honor Foundation, helping other veterans through similar struggles. “Mentally preparing for different types of situations with my family is also helpful. For example, we’ve thought through different scenarios that could trigger a stress reaction and thought about how we’d cope with each so that we know what to do if any of us do feel stress.”
16. Plan to keep holiday spirits high. When Navy Capt. Kurt V. Scott started spending the holiday season away from his family as a young officer in the submarine fleet, unable to call or check in often for months at a time, the work he had done over the summer kept his spirits up.
“We called it Christmas in July. That’s when we’d do our holiday shopping because, all too often, you might not be there in December,” he says.
That helped ease the pain of separation once Christmas rolled around.
“Because we had planned ahead and the kids were opening presents I had helped pick out, I was there in spirit,” he says. “That’s what got me through those periods, because I knew what they were looking at. I could put myself into the situation and know what they were experiencing that day.”
His dad, who was also a submariner, taught him another trick. On the rare opportunities he could mail a letter or package back home, he’d always include a secret code.
“I would flip the stamp upside down, which was our little way of saying, “I love you.”
17. Don’t isolate yourself. Especially for those wrestling through baggage from downrange, there’s usually a big temptation to withdraw from friends and loved ones, says Scott, who now heads the Navy’s suicide prevention office.
If you’re feeling bad, you’ve got to reach out to talk to someone.
“The single most important thing is reaching out to a shipmate and talking about it,” Scott says. “It’s OK to talk about it. It’s actually a sign of strength to reach out for help.”
If your battle buddy or wingman isn’t available, there are a variety of peer-to-peer hotlines available for military and veterans, Barry says.
“The great thing about these peer-to-peer programs is that, while it’s fine to talk in generalities, they can talk in specifics and meet you where you’re at mentally and situationally ... just not geographically.”
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