Decreasing Holiday Stress
Light and hope are common themes at the root of many winter holidays. Though winter will remain with us for a time, the winter solstice in December marks the gradual increasing of light after the longest night. Despite this, the holiday season is often a time of increased stress, making it difficult to connect with the experience of light and hope in our lives. Why not take the opportunity and make the choice to do things differently this year?
Below are some ways you can take control and give yourself the gift of light, hope and peace this holiday season.
Keep to your regular routine:
Knowing what is going to happen and when provides a sense of stability and reassurance. Keeping your sleep routine stable, exercise times in place, and meal times regular will help your body and brain get the fuel they need to help you calmly face the challenges of the holidays.
HALT is an acronym used in 12 Step recovery programs, but applies to everyone. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – these are vulnerability factors that can lead to relapse in people in recovery, and can also make anyone less able to handle challenges, more likely to use unhealthy coping strategies, and more likely to lash out at others. Look for the signs that you are experiencing any of these things and take steps to address those most basic of needs.
Watch the comparisons:
Remember no one has the perfect family or perfect holidays, even if it might look like it from the outside. Focusing on what you wish you had and what you think others have can keep you stuck in a negative story about not being able to have the holiday season you want – and it can keep you from being open to what you do have and creating a new holiday story for yourself.
Expectations increase pressure, anxiety and guilt:
Practice realistic expectations of yourself and others, accepting that family and friends are who they are and may not be who you want them to be. And give yourself permission to be yourself regardless of what others may think. Recall what topics tend to be difficult and lead to arguments or hurt feelings and create a cope ahead plan. Either alone or with a supportive third party, think about ways to respond if those topics come up.
For example, if a certain aunt always asks about when you plan to get married or start a family, a response might be “I’m thinking about that, too, and when I/we have news on that front, I’ll make sure to tell you.” Or when your sister comments on your eating habits, a response might be “I know you are trying to look out for me, but when you make those comments I feel more stress, and we all know stress often equals stress-eating. It would help me if you would allow me to make my own choices about food at the holidays without comment.” Remember you are not in the past even if being around family calls up old feelings and patterns.
Taking time to plan ahead can offer freedom from old negative stories about ourselves and provide an opportunity to experience our own ability to change what doesn’t work in our lives.
Think back to think ahead:
Think about the parts of the holidays that are stressful to you, and be specific. Is it having the time to prepare a meal for twelve, having to see certain people, worrying about making money stretch, or having to go to four different family events in one day? Once you identify the specific stressors, make a plan for how to cope if you can’t change the stressor, or look for ways to make changes.
Perhaps make a new family tradition to have the holiday meal as a potluck. Suggest putting a cap on gift spending – this may be more warmly received that you think as many people, no matter how their finances look from the outside, express stress over holiday spending. Or focus on giving gifts that let people know they matter and celebrate who they are, which could be as simple as a collage with a heartfelt message. Perhaps confide in a trusted family or friend who can run interference for you with a particularly difficult family member. Try splitting the holiday visits out over the holiday weekend, or negotiate with family and friends to celebrate with one group on Christmas Eve, and one on Christmas day.
Think about what the holidays mean to you on a deeper level:
Create new rituals and routines around the holidays for yourself and your family that focus on the deeper meaning. There is no one way to celebrate the holidays and often the most meaningful are the ones we create with our family and friends. For some, spending the holiday volunteering at a shelter offers the most reward. Others may schedule a skype conference call with their far flung friends and family to reaffirm their connection. And others may order Chinese food, curl up with a good blanket and do some art journaling, creating an opportunity to slow down and refuel the soul for the winter ahead. All are valid.
Tell guilt to take a holiday:
It is okay to say no when you already have as much as you can handle on your plate. Ask for help if you need it – let someone else feel useful and needed. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, the authors of Scarcity: Why having too little means so much share research that shows when we have less time, we have more difficulty managing what time we do have and tend to go on auto-pilot. When we are on autopilot, we are more likely to say ‘yes’ to the next request even though we are already overfull. So practice a ‘no’ response before hand – making a specific plan with exactly what we want to say increases the likelihood that we will adhere to our original intentions when faced with a new request.
Be there for yourself just like you often try to be there for everyone else:
You’ll feel better and be more able to feel the support you offer others is freely given rather than resenting people for the support you give. Practice self-compassion and take time-outs for yourself. Incorporate the five senses – have a pot of apple cider simmering on the stove, wrap up in a cozy blanket to watch your favorite holiday movie, put on your favorite music – holiday or otherwise, use candles and essential oils for your bath or shower times, take time to slowly and mindfully put lotion on your hands after you have washed them.
Take a moment to take in joy and experience gratitude:
This may be the last on this list, but is not the least – it is perhaps the most important and powerful. Research is showing more and more the power of gratitude to promote health and wellness, and those foremost in the field such as Rick Hanson are quick to point out we have the power to train our brain to seek out moments ripe for gratitude. This season, notice a child’s face as they open a gift, really attend to a person offering a ‘thank you’ for something you did or gave, really attend to your own experience of gratitude when receiving, and notice kind gestures made by others during the season. Then later, perhaps as you settle for bed, recall those moments and hold them in your mind for a minute, paying attention to any enjoyable sensations that arise in your body and warm emotions that arise in your heart. You have just strengthened those ‘feel good’ pathways in your brain and fed your brain the evidence to munch on that life has precious moments to offer.
With that, let me wish you and your loved ones a meaningful, mindful holiday season filled with many moments of gratitude!
Chandra Reber, MA, LPCA
Below are some resources that may help you on your holiday journeys.
Hanson PhD, Rick. (2011) Just one thing: Developing a Buddha brain one simple practice at a time. New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA
Mullainathan, S. & Shafir, E. (2013) Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Times Books.
Surviving the family holiday written by Mary Foston-English, MFT
5 Tips for self-care during the holidays written by Charlene Tops
5 Research based ways to say no during the holidays written by Christine Carter
10 Tips for Surviving the holidays written by Linda Walter LCSW
1) SAM – an app for your phone that is designed to help manage stress and anxiety. Below is the link, but you can also just search ‘SAM’ on your phone’s app store.
2) www.Mindful.org – follow the link below (or copy and paste in your browser) to see a list of some of the top apps to support mindfulness
3) Thankful For – a free, basic iPhone app for collecting gratitude, finding gratitude quotes, and tapping into the gratitude stream from others. You can search ‘Thankful For’ in the app store on your iPhone.