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Cognitive Restructuring for the Military Spouse: How to Turn Your Less-Than-Sunny Attitude Into One of Gratitude This Thanksgiving Season

Ever feel like you’re on a merry-go-round of negativity? Like your gut reactions line up a liiiiittle too well with Debbie Downer?

Then you might need a little cognitive restructuring in your life, my friend. **

Essentially, cognitive restructuring is taking negative associations or thoughts and mentally re-working them for a more positive outcome. At first glance, cognitive restructuring can seem Pollyanaish or naive, but it’s more than “looking on the bright side” or “making the best of a bad situation.”

Cognitive restructuring is about retraining your brain.

 And I get it ladies, cognitive restructuring sounds a little … out there. The first time someone told me about it, I’m pretty sure my exact thoughts were, “Cognitive restructuring, pffft, I’ll restructure your face …” — rounded off by a nice exaggerated eye roll. But think about it …

As military spouses, we’re often called upon to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and tough it out.

Make it happen.

Take one for the team.

We’re often the only adult in a household full of children, the daily decision maker, the weary one woman star in a show of endurance and feats of unusual strength. 

It’s exhausting at times. Bone weary, bleary eyed, emotionally draining, and just – exhausting. Military life can seem like a revolving door of challenges that leave you feeling defeated and less than optimistic.

Most of the time it seems like we can’t change any of that – but maybe with a new skill set and a little work, we can.

Why Restructure?

The deployments, temporary duty assignments, permanent change of station (PCS) season, and general craziness of military life will continue to happen whether or not I have Stage 5 toddler-style meltdowns about them – and believe me, I have.

What I can change, however, is my attitude and perspective concerning those things. We all know that our attitudes can make or break the vibe in our home — after all, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

A positive attitude and well-rounded perspective can be difficult to maintain with the rigors of military life. Get into a good routine, and the routine changes. Adapt to the plan, and the plan becomes obsolete. This is where restructuring can really shine in the life of the military spouse.

Restructuring takes a certain amount of dedication because it isn’t what comes naturally. It also takes determination.

Dedication and determination?

Military spouses have got those for daaays, darling.

So this Thanksgiving season, start with something small, something that automatically gets a negative reaction out of you and puts you in a funk.

Think about one way that you can re-work your associations with or perspective on that topic, and then practice the heck out of it. If you’re going “home” for Thanksgiving, I have no doubt you’ll have plenty of negative triggers to practice with 😉  but just in case, I’ll get you started with a couple of my own restructuring endeavors.

Deployments and TDYs and Training, oh my!

Natural Reaction:  Almost immediately after hearing the word “deployment,” I become irritable, overly-sensitive, and I begin to distance myself from my husband. Call it emotional muscle memory, or self-preservation – whatever it is, it’s my natural reaction. Unfortunately, sometimes our “natural” reactions are actually doing something that psychologists refer to as, cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are negative thought patterns or faulty thinking that almost always manifest as not-so-nice outcomes in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. Restructuring allows you to redirect those negative thoughts as they creep into your consciousness. 

Restructured: Currently our family is working very hard to pay off all of our debt, and the extra income from a deployment would certainly expedite that process.

See? I haven’t ignored the hardships of deployment, I’ve just chosen to find a more positive way to view the experience. The next time I hear the word deployment, I will immediately shift my focus from anger or anxiety to the positive association of paying off debt. 

PCS Season

Natural Reaction: Faaaantastic; we’re moving. Again. I’ll have to leave all of my friends and move into a community of strangers. I hate packing. I hate moving. Waahhhh, waaah, waaaaaah. (There’s Debbie!)

Restructured:  A new duty station means new opportunities. There will be new things to do and see, and my kids and I can join a few new groups to jumpstart our friendships; it feels good being involved in the community I live in.

Again, I have not discounted the fact that leaving friends is difficult or that moving can be stressful, it’s just not my focus. My restructured reaction allows me to view something that is going to happen, regardless of how I feel about it, in a more positive light.

Cognitive restructuring is not a magic wand or a cure-all, but it can allow you to remove some of the negativity from your life. Think of it as a weapon in your self-care arsenal, and use it when it benefits you. It’s a little like surrounding yourself with supportive people in order to achieve your goals, but in this case, the supporting cast is within your own grasp — within your own mind.

It has taken real effort to restructure my thinking, but the effects of consistently implementing cognitive restructuring have been incredibly worth the work. My overall anxiety level is down, and my overarching outlook has improved. I think you’ll find the same if you give it a try.

How will you add restructuring to your military-mama-life?

** I am not a medical professional. The benefits of cognitive restructuring have been tremendous for me, but they may not be beneficial for everyone. These techniques are not a replacement for therapy, anti-depressants, or other help a mental health professional can provide. 

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2 Responses to Cognitive Restructuring for the Military Spouse: How to Turn Your Less-Than-Sunny Attitude Into One of Gratitude This Thanksgiving Season

  1. Erin November 21, 2017 at 5:33 am #

    You say this so well. I didn’t have a name for it, but I’ve been practicing cognitive restructuring since the day my husband told me he wanted to join the military. My latest success story: the last time moved I knew I wasn’t going to get to choose if I wanted to live on post or off post. I’d be told and it wasn’t negotiable. Instead of fixing my heart on one thing or another, I made a pro-pro list. The cons were obvious and didn’t need scrutiny (why are cons so much easier to think of?). I wanted to have ready-made reasons to be happy about living wherever we were told to. And it worked!

    • Christian Knutson November 21, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

      I LOVE the idea of making a pros only list! As you said, the cons are easy to come by, but what a great way to keep your focus on the good. Love it, love it. I’ll definitely be trying it!