The picture of a perfect family, gathered around a perfect large table, eating a perfectly cooked holiday feast, with perfect smiles and love for all may seem like a good plot for a Hallmark movie, but it doesn’t quite depict the average family. Even close families are intricately woven fabrics; together, they are strong, but there can also be dissension within the ranks. Parents, grown children, siblings, and extended family often clash over everything from table manners to hair color. Old arguments, political, emotional, or opinionated views can surface, or re-surface causing a tinderbox of family-related stress.
What causes holiday stress?
It was James P. Cattell in 1955, a Harvard and Columbia trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, coined the term “the holiday syndrome,” describing it as a reaction in some patients that manifests itself beginning around Thanksgiving and ending a few days after January 1st. It is characterized, he insisted, “. . . by the presence of diffuse anxiety, numerous regressive phenomena including marked feelings of helplessness, possessiveness, and increased irritability, nostalgic or bitter rumination about holiday experiences of youth, depressive affect, and a wish for magical resolution of problems.”
Stress at this time of year, or any time of year, when holidays or special occasions bring friends, families, co-workers, and acquaintances together can be overwhelmingly stressful. For some, it could be overinflated expectations, not having control over people, places, or events, struggling with family conflict, break ups, divorce, loneliness, or loss. For others, it’s trying to coordinate time off from work, rearranging schedules to attend holiday functions, organizing travel arrangements, over-extending your budget and purchasing on credit, just to name a few. Here, we will talk about some of the significant stressors that people deal with during the holidays, and ways we can overcome them.
Constant reminders of others’ happy seasons can additionally serve as a painful reminder of the happiness and love that is lacking in our own lives. Setting unrealistic expectations of a perfect holiday, from perfect people and perfect attitudes, to perfect meals, and perfect gifts, right down to perfect weather, isn’t going to happen!
Charles R. Swindoll, pastor, author, and educator, beautifully said, “We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.”
Festive holidays or celebrations have a beginning, middle, and end. Knowing this, what if, this year, you put things into perspective by reminding yourself that this is temporary. And, what if you decide that you are not going to allow uncontrollable circumstances to cause you great stress and angst? And, what would happen if everything doesn’t go according to a perfect plan, you let it go, and would be okay with that? And what if your best is good enough? And, last but not least, what if, after the festivities are over, you look back and say; “I did it,” without feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and perhaps bitter, and angry. Lowering your expectations to fit the situation can significantly reduce the amount of stress you willingly feed the circumstance.
Finances can cause significant stress during the holidays. Over-extending yourself buying gifts and using your credit card to make purchases can send you down a slippery slope. When the holidays are over and the new year has arrived, you may find yourself burdened by overwhelming debt from impulse purchases and unnecessary extravagances.
Scaling down your holiday finances may require some creative thinking, but it will be so worth it when you don’t have big credit card bills to pay the following month. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give someone a present. The most underappreciated, though most valuable gift you can give someone is the gift of your time. Time is precious, and your time is no different.
Provide a babysitting evening so that parents can have a few hours of uninterrupted time to themselves. Offer to help out with chores that need doing around the house or garden. If cooking is your thing, offer a voucher to prepare a homemade meal, complete with all the fixings. Put your computer skills to work and create a dynamite resume, proofread an important document, or teach someone the basic applications of using a computer. Your gift of time may outlast any trinket you buy that may be re-gifted or stuck in the back of the closet.
Commercialism can overshadow the true sentiment of the holiday season. When your holiday expense list is fatter than your monthly budget, scale back. Remind yourself that family, friends, and relationships are what matter most.
We miss those we’ve lost.
The holidays and celebrations remind us of loved ones who have passed, or with whom we’ve lost touch. Holiday carols, special ornaments, or a favorite movie can trigger grief and melancholy. Significant occasions are always difficult for those suffering from loss. Deciding to ignore family holidays or functions could exacerbate your sadness and stress. Remember, people, grieve in different ways. One may want to reminisce, while another may prefer to remain quiet. Either way is perfectly acceptable, and if you may be the one grieving, do not feel guilty or feel you need to adjust the way you think, feel, or act to conform to others’ expectations. Talk, or share memories about your loved one, or remain silent when you feel you need to do so. Guilt is such a useless emotion, so ensure that you participate fully and to the best of your ability, when you can.
When we don’t have many social or family connections, it’s difficult to see those around us participate in exuberant holiday cheer. While we may receive two or three Christmas cards and our friend or family member may receive enough to wallpaper a room, we shouldn’t base our situations on someone else’s preconceived happiness. Make plans for the holidays to include volunteering for charity work. For example, you could help local organizations or people in need within your area celebrate the holidays. This, alone, will make such a positive impact on how you can significantly affect another human being. The appreciation and outpouring of gratitude you will experience will surpass anything you can imagine.
Take necessary steps to widen your social network. If you have been estranged from friends and family, the holidays are a great time to re-connect. If you feel comfortable, contact those whom you have lost touch with, reach out and re-establish a connection and maintain relationships throughout the coming year.
The holidays, particularly Christmas, is a time to reflect on the passage of time. We reflect on what we have accomplished, or perhaps didn’t accomplish within the year. Like the John Lennon song says, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just began.” For those who haven’t accomplished their goals from the previous year, this may be a time for negative reflection. This may be time that you focus more on perceived failure, disregarding the progress you have made and the positive experiences you have achieved.
No one is ever so hard on “us” than we are on ourselves. If you haven’t achieved your goals or aspirations at the end of the year, that’s fine. Consider them to be placed on the priority list for next year. We, as humans, put way too many demands on how we need to fulfill our life before we leave this world. No one is ever going to write on our tombstone she was a great cleaner, he was a great dog walker, no, what will be remembered is how you treated and cared for people. If your self-reflection includes things you didn’t accomplish throughout the year but does include how you loved your kids, your grand-kids, helped those in need, or perhaps lent an ear to someone who really needed a friend, your list of “must achieve goals” was surpassed by what life is really all about. We all have only so much time to enjoy this world, don’t be so had on yourself for what you think you haven’t accomplished, and praise what you have actually done. At the end of the year, you are stronger, wiser, and better than you were a year ago. Take solace in the fact that you have achieved life’s lessons, perhaps not ones that you included on your list, but ones that will carry you through to next year.
S.A.D. Seasonal Affective Disorder during the holidays:
Symptoms of SAD typically include a persistent low mood, a loss of interest in everyday activities, irritability, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and feeling lethargic. Unfortunately, with these symptoms being most severe during the winter months can be hard for someone who has SAD to get through the holidays. It is important to try and get as much vitamin D as possible by going for a walk while the sun is still up. Trying to capture as much daylight as possible will help to ease the symptoms associated with this condition.
SAD affects about 1 – 2% of the population, particularly women and young people, while a milder form of the winter blues may affect as many as 10 to 20 percent of people.
Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight SAD, especially if you can exercise outside in natural daylight. Regular exercise boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals, as well, improves your ability to sleep and boosts your self-esteem. If possible, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of daily activity. Even something as simple as walking the dog may be a good exercise for both of you.
Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of SAD cases. However, the timing and length of exposure needed can vary according to your symptoms and circadian rhythm, so it’s best to receive guidance from your doctor or therapist to choose the right light therapy, and to find the proper dosage specifically for you.
How can you minimize holiday stress?
Here are some tips and ideas on how to reduce holiday stress.
- Make a list. Long before you start to feel overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to make a list of all the things you need to accomplish over the holidays. Once you have jotted down everything you need to do, as you begin to complete these tasks, cross them off the list. This will keep you organized and will give you a visual aid of everything you have accomplished thus far.
- Have realistic expectations. Remember to keep your expectations realistic about what you want for this holiday season. It is so easy to get caught up in the idea that you need to; have more, do more, be more – you don’t. In reality, you need not worry if others expect more from you. What is important, is this year, you are going to do the best you can, with what you have – no more, and no less. And, instead of aiming for perfection, aim to reduce stress in your life by focusing on enjoying the holidays as a more calm, relaxed… you!
- Less is more. Instead of going into credit card debt to purchase an abundance of gifts for everyone, scale down your gift-giving and offer the gift of your time instead. Set a strict budget and stick to it. Use a list to help keep track of your spending and know that in one month, your bank account will thank you for it.
- Take time for self-care. Schedule daily self-care time just as you would for meetings, appointments, or any other commitment you would write down in your calendar. Schedule time for exercise, meditation, a hobby you enjoy, something that will reduce stress and increase balance in your life.
Consider booking a massage for a full hour of uninterrupted soothing and relaxation time, just for you. Having a massage can significantly reduce mental and emotional stress, while it will also provide quality sleep. Massage may also increase your “feel good” hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, thereby helping to boost your mood.
Practice gratitude daily and be mindful and present in your environment. Regardless of what type of day we are having, there are at least 2 things we can document before we go to bed at night that we are grateful for. Start to write them down before you go to sleep. Within one week, you will be amazed at how truly blessed you are! And remember what flight attendants say as part of their safety preparations; you need to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
- Learn to say “No.” To avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying “no” to invitations, favors, and requests during the holidays, we often say “yes” when we actually mean “no.” This is a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and may increase your stress level significantly, plus, it could be harmful to your overall health. Building healthy boundaries for yourself and learning to value your time and space is one of the greatest gifts you can give to you. Learning to say “no” without guilt is a practiced endeavor. The more you practice, the better you get, and the less stress you will feel because you’ve been true to you!
- Talk things through.Communication is a powerful tool, if delivered honestly, sincerely, and with the best intentions. Talking with a close friend or family member can help ease the holiday stress you may be feeling. Sometimes we need a fresh perspective to guide us back on the right track. Having someone to talk to can certainly ease the stress and frustration.
- Breathe.As we prepare for the holidays or any celebration, deep breathing is something which many of us tend to overlook to help manage stress. Proper breathing has proven to be one of the most effective methods for reducing stress and anxiety. When we are uptight or anxious, it’s not uncommon for us to breathe in a shallow manner, as we proceed through our day. This can increase our stress, cause headaches, or make one feel tired and sluggish. Being mindful and remembering to breathe deeply can be a very useful and simple tool in reducing heart rate, relaxing the whole body, energize the mind, and help to refocus your attention.
- Pay attention to how you are feeling. Tune into the emotions you are experiencing. Emotions may be positive, negative, or a combination of the two. Feeling less stressed with your family, friends, or co-workers is learning to manage your emotions instead of trying to control the feelings of others. We tend to adjust our inner feelings to help maintain harmony within our family, which can have adverse effects on how we feel about ourselves. By paying attention to our body, mind, and emotions, we become able to balance our needs for individuality.
- Ask for help. If you find you are overwhelmed during the holidays, reach out and ask for help. You may be surprised how people are willing to help you get things done. After all, most people do not read minds, and may not realize you are carrying more stress than you should. Many people take on a multitude of tasks that could be easily delegated, then wonder why they are burnt out. Ask for help and forget the idea that if you want it done, you need to do it yourself. Ask for help if you are hosting the holiday festivities – a family member, or friend may feel honored that you asked him/her to help lessen your stress while inviting them to participate. Unless you ask, you will never know.
- Take a technology vacation. Taking a mini-sabbatical from all of your technology gadgets may be unreasonable, or even impossible, though lessening the amount of time you spend on them may be more practical. Scrolling through social networks, seeing others post how wonderful their holidays are, and how they are enjoying the most epic Harlequin romance holiday of all time may trigger the feeling of inadequacy, anxiety, or depression. If you are spending the holidays alone, try and refrain from checking your social media continuously. Keep in mind that not all photos posted have been sprinkled with fairy dust, gumdrops, and lollypops, and are not necessarily a reflection of their perfect life.
If you are not able to make it home for the holidays or any celebration, then technology can certainly help connect you with family, friends, and loved ones through the power of video chat and telephone calls.
- Watch comedy shows. Nothing beats stress like a good ole belly laugh. According to an article written by the Mayo Clinic, a good laugh has great short-term and long-term effects. It can reduce stress, soothe tension, and even improve your immune system. Watching funny movies may help overcome holiday stress, and allow your mind to take a break from your current environment.
- Do something good for someone else. We have all heard those wonderful acts of kindness stories of people who have extended their generosity way above and beyond, though that kind of service isn’t always possible, nor can most of us afford to do so. But there are small things you can do, not just during the holidays, but all year round that will improve your spirit and brighten the lives of everyone around you.
– Compliment someone you don’t know.
– Shovel snow, or snow blow a neighbor’s driveway (especially after the plow has
come down the street).
– Donate food to the local food pantry.
– Let someone move ahead of you in the grocery line.
– Send a card or letter to a military member who is deployed.
– Express appreciation to a coworker or friend.
– Buy a coffee for the person behind you in line.
– Smile at someone you don’t know.
– Buy lunch for a homeless person.
It’s the little things that make a huge impact on your life and other’s.
- Limit your alcohol intake.Between holiday cocktails and extra parties, it’s understandable that many people use holidays or celebrations to overindulge. While you may consider having that extra drink will help with holiday stress, in the end, it won’t. Too much alcohol can lead to saying the wrong thing, behaving in a clumsy manner, embarrassing yourself, or others, as well as unintentionally bruising the feelings of family or friends. It can exacerbate other problems like depression and insomnia. It’s best to keep drinking to a minimum, and therefore you are not putting your sanity, health, or license at risk.
Many people feel stressed during the holidays, but in reality, it takes just a bit of imagination to overcome these trying times. The best we can do is to take care of ourselves and pick and choose our battles wisely. These practical tips may minimize your stress and anxiety and help you cope. However, don’t be afraid to speak with your doctor or health care professional so they may help you improve your coping skills, and help you get through the holiday season with a smile on your face.