It is not uncommon for people to spend much of the year reflecting on the good and the bad of last year’s holiday experience and creating expectations for the next round of holidays. The holiday season is supposed to be a time of bonding with loved ones, observing meaningful rituals, and stuffing ourselves with yummy food made only once a year. Given how much time we spend anticipating and planning for the holidays, it is especially disturbing when our stress levels skyrocket in the days leading up to and during the holiday festivities. Even your best vow to not let holiday stress overwhelm you this year may require some additional options present in your stress management toolbox.
The art of managing holiday stress is really a blend of (1) controlling expectations of yourself and others, (2) maintaining awareness of your sensitive areas (aka pet peeves) and the unexpected stressors that influence your mood and behavior, and (3) remembering that you have options for responding and your choices have consequences. Depending on how you address each of these areas will determine whether you bring light or darkness to your holiday experience.
In this blog post, I have chosen to focus on increasing awareness of unexpected influences on stress to keep in mind, and I offer stress management strategies for helping you to navigate through each stressor. I have purposely left out the more common holiday stressors, such as the pressure to buy the right gifts for people or the stress of traveling to be with family. As you will see, the strategies I provide can be easily applied to more than just a few special days of the year, but to any effort to become more patient, less judgmental, and more fulfilled in life.
Here we go…
Holiday Stressor #1: There are going to be people at your holiday gathering who really annoy you. You anticipate that your holiday will be ruined by the outlandish behavior of a certain relative who has disrupted previous holiday gatherings with his or her unacceptable antics (and has been gossiped about since last year’s gathering).
Stress Management Strategy #1: Stop fortune-telling. This anticipatory anxiety is quite unhealthy. What a great time to practice giving people the benefit of the doubt. When you expect certain negative behaviors from others, you might subtly arrange the situation so that the undesired behavior is manifested. If your uncle does, in fact, get overly intoxicated at dinner, plan a family intervention for after the holidays. Why not create some open headspace by avoiding playing the videotape in your mind of how people will act at your holiday gathering? Be open to other possibilities.
One of the most important ideas to remember when you are chronically irritated by family members is that, if you search deep enough inside, you will find that you struggle with the very thing that you accuse family members of doing. This is about owning your struggle and avoiding judging others, especially when you grapple with the same problems that you can’t handle seeing in others. For example. if you tend to lose control and overeat when tempting goodies are put in front of you, avoid judging others for the same behavior. Try out this stress management strategy to feel a greater sense of lightness around people who tend to reflect back to you something you don’t want to face within.
Holiday Stressor #2: Life now feels like it’s moving a a blistering pace as the holidays approach. You feel like you can’t keep up.
Stress Management Strategy #2: No matter how many responsibilities require your attention before or during the holidays, make sure you step outside of the frazzling, frantic pace and slow it down from a sprint to a mozy. If you can’t briefly press pause on life’s pressures, you will miss out on appreciating the holiday pleasures. Shut off your phone, take a walk and tell yourself that 10 or 20 minutes of tuning the world out will be therapeutic for you. Listen to a song that you makes you feel nostalgic or reminds you of all things positive.
People often feel immense pressure to get things done before the holidays. Think of how liberating it will feel once you’ve tied up loose ends at work or handed in that last assignment. If you arrive at the holidays feeling unaccomplished, force yourself to list 10 accomplishments, big or small, over the past year.
Holiday Stressor #3: It seems like everyone is having a more festive holiday than you are.
Stress Management Strategy #3: First and foremost, don’t believe everything you see on Facebook and other social media. People often post what they want you to think of them as opposed to what’s actually happening. They typically show their best angle and you will not be privy to their inner struggle.
Second, the holidays are but a few days of the year. If you feel disappointed with your holiday experience or if you were alone, take the initiative to plan a gathering with people who matter to you right after the holidays. This will give you something to look forward to. Third, you can use this as an opportunity to practice feeling thankful for other people’s good fortune, an exercise associated with a greater sense of well-being.
Holiday Stressor #4: You are worried that your family members will bring out the worst in you when they broach certain subjects.
Stress Management Strategy #4: Whether you admit it or not, there is a good chance that you will regress a bit during a family holiday celebration. I am referring to the inner child in you who has endured many family holidays in similar context with roughly the same people who know you to be the one who gets annoyed or blushes when that certain topic or memory is brought up.
As the child within you begs to make him or herself known, you could find yourself acting in ways that you reserve only for family. Be careful not to let your behavior be guided by events that happened in the past. Remember, in the here-and-now you have more options available to you as an adult than you did as a child. Choose to react in a way that won’t fan the flames of old conflicts. Try to surprise family members by taking the high road if you are provoked. You gain nothing healthy by one-upping family members with heavier insults than were thrown at you. If you are feeling bitter toward others, remind yourself that no other family has the quirks of your family, and try to find the humorous angle from which to view your family’s signature style of celebrating the holidays.
Holiday Stressor #5: It seems like everyone around you is rushing, not paying attention, or more agitated than usual leading up to the holidays.
Stress Management Strategy #5: You may be right, but you don’t know for certain. Don’t assume you know the reason for other people’s behavior. Ask before judging if it is someone you know. Also, your experience of others as impatient, mean, or absent-minded around the holidays may or may not be a projection. In other words, you could be failing to take inventory of how stressed and uneasy YOU are, and instead you are locating your inner experience in other people and accusing them of the exact behavior with which you struggle so that you don’t have to own it. Challenge yourself to take responsibility for your own feelings and be kind to others just in case they are struggling with the holiday blues.
Holiday Stressor #6: You NEED the holidays to save you and you have incredibly high standards for what constitutes a great holiday. You have a very specific vision for what should happen.
Stress Management Strategy #6: Expectations, expectations, expectations. Banking on the holidays to be everything you have wanted all year is downright dangerous and is likely to lead to anything from bitter disappointment to a depressive state that will take time to recover from.
If you relate to this stressor, then it’s imperative that you begin to practice lowering your expectations to a “reasonable” level. Instead of repeatedly daydreaming about a holiday dance rave around the dinner table, aim for a pleasant conversation about everyone’s favorite holiday songs. Instead of expecting to experience roaring belly laughs and the best food ever, come prepared with a few good jokes and try to appreciate the effort put in by the host.
Treat yourself to being pleasantly surprised by what you stumble upon, as opposed to telling yourself definitive self-statements of “I will only be happy if….”. Setting narrowly defined conditions for your happiness will only leave you disappointed.
Holiday Stressor #7: You are having trouble accepting that this year’s holiday festivities seem like they will be smaller and less appealing than last year’s shindig. You struggle to get excited about this year when you believe you will just be disappointed in the end.
Stress Management Strategy #7: I know I’ve promoted corralling expectations, but sometimes low expectations are used as a self-handicapping strategy to give the illusion of being prepared for an inevitable letdown. Be open to the possibility that this year’s plans could surprise you, but don’t allow yourself to decide exactly how it will go. Tell yourself that you will be able to find a way to enjoy the holiday even if the party lacks something you fondly remember from last year. Avoid a passive stance to contributing to the momentum of the party. Either take action and help to make it more special or just accept that this holiday is unique. Remind yourself of your successes since last year’s holiday gathering even if they feel small. It will help soften most holiday disappointments.
Holiday Stressor #8: You are just not feeling in the holiday spirit and you don’t want to have to fake it.
Stress Management Strategy #8: If you are feeling down and you wish you could be more positive about the holidays, consider that they come and go like a one-hit wonder. Since you do have to be in attendance, try to engage in one of the following behaviors to improve your mood during the experience.
First, if you are experiencing an unstable mood, it is not recommended that you drink excessively. If you must, a good buzz goes further than getting smashed. If you overdo it, you are just promoting the chances of feeling anxiety or “the blues” for one or several days after the actual holiday. You also lose the chance to build a powerful memory of a great holiday if you don’t remember half of it or if you end it in a sloppy manner. You might want to avoid embarrassing yourself and having to contact people to see if you’ve offended them.
Second, try not to overdose on sugar to keep your mood even. Perhaps you can pick at desserts rather than finish them. Third, if there are children present, commit to making the holiday a memorable experience for them. Don’t expose them to negativity. A child’s laughter is one of the most rewarding sights to witness.
Fourth, make it your business to say something positive or complimentary to as many people as you can. This type of investment in others goes a long way to improve your mood and can promote lasting gains in feeling better about life in general. This form of giving is a perfect way to combat depression. You might plan to do this ahead of time to lift your spirits in anticipation of the holiday. Fifth, you can promote group sharing of what you are thankful for.
This list is a rough guide for troubleshooting the holidays. If you experience significant emotional distress around the holidays, please consider getting professional help. It doesn’t have to feel that way in the future. Now go and make the best of your holiday experience. Good luck!
Here are a few other great articles with suggestions for handling holiday stress…
Stress, depression, and the holidays: Tips for coping
25 Ways to Fight Holiday Stress
Disclaimer: This blog entry is for entertainment purposes only. Reading this blog does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Kushnick. For more information about beginning psychotherapy with Dr. Kushnick, feel free to call or email with any questions.