Coping with holiday stress
As the holiday period begins, we enter a time of extreme highs and lows for many people. Ideally it is a time to slow down, to visit with family and friends, to share meals together, and maybe to exchange gifts. Unfortunately, for too many people, it is also a time for the “holiday blues.” Busy schedules get busier with preparations, events, and celebrations. Most everything is done to excess: too much food, too much alcohol, too many sweets. Memories from the past can set the stage for disappointments, clouding the actual events. Although time spent with family and friends can be joyful, it can also be downright contentious. Many people feel lonely during the holidays, even though it is purportedly the most social time of year. Loss of loved ones can leave people feeling anticipation and dread; for them it is a reminder of the emptiness and absence they feel and can trigger unresolved grief or anger. It is easy to overspend, adding further to our stress. Then, because of the changes to our routines, we often ignore or disrupt healthy habits such as normal exercise, diet, and sleep. We end up feeling bad, physically and emotionally. So, what’s not to love about the holidays, right?!!!!
It is important to keep perspective during the holidays and to not lose your sense of what you value during this time of year. It is also important to think about how you can take care of yourself and your loved ones so that you can enjoy what is happening and be more present. Below is a list of ideas to consider in order to help keep you on track.
Stay centered in your values.
Remember what is important. Think about your values, and, what the holidays mean to you. Try to keep these values at the forefront when you make decisions about what you will be doing and with whom, and, how you will cope with the people around you.
Revisit your traditions. Have conversations with your loved ones and think about ways to keep the holidays meaningful. Try to counter the rampant materialism and hyper-busyness of the season with quiet times. Have a book exchange and settle in for a night of reading together. Agree to create homemade gifts, or, gifts that can be consumed and/or support your community, like tickets to an event or special food. Consider sustainability and the environment in your decisions, such as by thinking about the kinds of gifts you are giving, where they come from, and how they are wrapped and prepared. Let your values be reflected in all that you do to celebrate.
Express and receive gratitude.
Consciously reflect on what you are grateful for in your life each day. Express your appreciation directly to loved ones and friends when you are with them. All of you will feel the joy of this type of loving connection. Research suggests that expressing gratitude increases emotional and physical well-being, is associated with positive mood and self-esteem, is associated with stronger interpersonal relationships, and lowers stress and depression. Research also suggests that expressing gratitude helps us to find new or renew our relationships, to remind us of our current good relationships, and then to bind us more strongly together. This means that the more you express gratitude, the more the people around you will connect with you. People like to feel appreciated.
Help others. The holidays are difficult for many people. Think less about yourself and more about others. It can be people you know and love or people you don’t know. Neuroscience research shows that performing an altruistic act lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex! Whenever you feel the impulse to be generous, act on it. Without expecting anything in return, notice how good it feels inside when you see someone happy because of your sincere generosity. It can be as simple and profound as being fully present for a friend or sharing the gifts of your caring and attention. And be sure to include yourself in your generosity practice.
Take care of yourself and those around you.
Be clear about what you need and make sure you are assertive. Do what you need to, even if that means leaving a party early, putting your child down for a nap, or restricting your involvement or time at a party. Don’t be afraid to take charge of your needs or your family’s needs. You can also ask for help—that will let you have more time together to talk and listen to one another. It helps others to help you and decreases your responsibilities.
Take a break. You can always limit time with relatives and friends that you dread. Know what your hot spots are and create an action plan to remove yourself, even involving another family member or friend in your plan. Instead of getting upset, go for a walk or take a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed while preparing for events, stop and take a few breaths. Go enjoy a cup of tea or a hot bath. Get out of the doing mode for a little while and let yourself just relax. If that means limiting your time with family, stay at a hotel or don’t spend the night. If that means you don’t want to reminisce, don’t discuss the past or bad memories. Give yourself permission to get out of a difficult situation and try not to fall back on old roles with your family. Remember, it is okay to take care of and protect yourself.
Try not to overeat. Research shows that people who monitor their food intake and weigh themselves daily during the holidays gain less weight than people who don’t self-monitor. So keep track of how much you are eating. Create non-food events or traditions like going on a hike before you eat. When you do eat, take time to truly savor the food. Really see the food in front of you, smell the aromas, and let the flavors rest on your tongue before swallowing or picking up that next bite. Eating mindfully will slow down how much you actually eat. In addition, check in with your actual hunger level before that first bite. If you are not that hungry, than eat less! If you’re having a sit-down dinner, put your fork down between bites of food and while conversing.
Celebrate the season without risky drinking. Try to be conscious of the tendency to drink too much as you gather with others. Reduce your risk of injury by drinking within normal limits: no more than four standard drinks for men and three for women on any single day. A drink is defined as a 12-oz bottle of beer or wine cooler, a 5 oz glass of wine or a 1.5 oz shot of 80-proof liquor. When you do drink, keep track of how much you are drinking. Set limits for yourself and stick to them. Start with non-alcoholic drinks so that you are hydrated. Drink slowly. Eat before or while you are drinking. Limit yourself to half an alcohol containing drink per hour. Alternate alcohol-containing drinks with non-alcoholic ones like juice and water. Make sure you have a designated driver if you are drinking.
Be Present and be mindful.
Focus on what you are doing. Not on what others are doing (or not doing). Be mindful of yourself and try to let go of what other people are doing that upsets you. Look for the good in all of your interactions.
Have realistic expectations. Maybe lower your expectations so you aren’t disappointed. The holidays can never be perfect, yet, we can still have a wonderful and memorable time. The best approach is to try to be mindful and present so that you can notice what is happening in reality and accept it as it is. Notice the small things that you enjoy and can appreciate.
Seek the chance to play and have fun. Take time to plan activities that are fun and invoke laughter. Play a family game or look through old photo albums. Go to movies or decorate cookies. Be around kids if you can so that you can tune into and take delight in their enthusiasm. Sing or dance. Remember that happiness is contagious. When you are happy, you increase the chances that your close friends and family will be happy. The more you can stay connected to your own happiness, the more you help others get in touch with theirs.
Again, it is important to hold your values at the forefront of what you do, express gratitude, take care of yourself and your loved ones, and try to be fully present. If the holiday blues, sadness or anxiety persist past the holiday season, please consider contacting a mental health provider at EAW as you may be dealing with a more serious condition.
Ann Futterman Collier, PhD