6 Ways to Anticipate and Defuse Holiday Stress

-Peg Streep

The Halloween candy is marked down and the candy canes, keepsake ornaments, and all manner of Christmas paraphernalia, along with chocolate turkeys and Pilgrim hats, already line the shelves of my local drugstore. It’s not going to be long until the incessant bleat of canned Christmas carols fills the interior of every shop. For many whose childhood experiences of family were painful and filled with loss, the beginning of November signals a darkening of the horizon, with a long stretch of holiday time to get through.

The holidays are hard for many because we are bombarded with images of families who are content and loving, and we are reminded with special poignancy of what we missed as children and continue to as adults. The Norman Rockwell images of family gathering around the table, of people happy to see each other and close in each other’s company, remains painfully elusive.

But there are strategies you can adapt to make the holidays easier, whether you maintain contact with your original family or not. We often unwittingly collude in making the holidays more difficult than they need to be by adhering to the code of silence unloved daughters and sons feel compelled to honor—telling the world at large that we’re so looking forward to the holidays and the like— adding the burden of pretense to what’s already an emotional time of year. With our own families, we can become so focused on making everything perfect—in opposition to how we remember our own childhoods—that we manage to create stress.

There are ways, though, to make the season emotionally and psychologically easier.

1.Define your expectations

Making sure that you’re being realistic is an important first step, whether your contact with extended family is limited or more involved. Don’t let the needy, ever-hopeful child in you run the show because you’re bound to be disappointed. Holiday imagery aside, people don’t change because it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. Often we unconsciously set ourselves up for disappointment so bring your thoughts and expectations to the surface, remembering that the holidays make everyone feel needy at some level. Even relatively happy families often experience stress and discord this time of year.

2.Set boundaries and limits

Just because the holidays are here doesn’t mean you have to say “yes” to everything nor do you have to do your utmost to keep the peace at all costs. No one has appointed you the peacemaker and you should keep that in mind. If you’re seeing your parents or siblings, there’s no requirement that you have to step back into your childhood role. Anticipate the family dynamics and decide ahead of time how you’ll deal with situations should they come up, using “if/then” thinking. (“If Mom starts picking on me or criticizing me, I’ll simply leave the room. I don’t have to engage.”) Figuring out ahead of time what you are willing to do and what you’re not is key.

3. Know what you’re feeling

If you’re in an emotional valley going into the holiday season or on an emotional peak will factor into how well you fare so it’s important to get a bead on where you find yourself so you don’t unwittingly set up an internal ping-pong game of emotions. If you’re already struggling, keep your plans as simple as possible and don’t overextend yourself. If you’re feeling good, stay focused on that and don’t let the holiday tsunami take you down. For more, see #6.

4. Recognize that gift-giving is symbolic

While the tradition of gifts is supposed to be fun, many people find it yet another thing to dread. Sometimes, it comes down to finances but it’s rarely about money alone because gifts become yet another symbolic arena for the expression of tension and disappointment. Recognize the types of gift-givers in your circle. There are those angels who choose presents with you in mind and they make the holiday wonderful. And if you’re one of those people, you’re a treasure too. But there are also the show-offs whose gifts—usually expensive—are just reflective surfaces to display how terrific they are. There are the competitive gift-givers whose main goal is to win and who like nothing better than to show how your gifts are lacking. There are the complainers whose gift is always handed over with a long story of travail and who want you to acknowledge the terrible burden you placed on them…Stay on the high road and ignore those yucky types. If necessary, read or re-read O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi to remind yourself what this is supposed to be about.

5. Devise creative solutions

When I was in my twenties and estranged from my family, I used to throw parties for those who had nowhere to go on the holidays. The Millennials have actually institutionalized this practice with “Friendsgiving” gatherings and you can too. Family can be defined and redefined any way you like and there’s no reason to be bound by tradition. There are lots of ways to feel joyful in the season: do a potluck dinner to decorate a tree, have folks over to wrap small gifts for children in need, volunteer at a shelter with friends and then go for drinks after. Norman Rockwell, after all, is so last last century.

6. Subtract your blessings

I know you’re thinking that the word subtract is a typo because everyone always tells you to count your blessings, right? Well, the adage turns out to be not nearly as effective as subtracting as one clever experiment found. Remember the scene in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life when Clarence the angel tries to dissuade George Bailey from killing himself by showing what would have happened to everyone he cares about if he’d never been born? Well, taking a leaf out of what they called the George Bailey playbook, researchers wondered what would happen if people focused on what their lives would be like without the good things and people. Guess what? People were actually happier.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t admit your childhood or adult losses; it’s fine to mourn them. But letting the present define you, rather than the past, is really what you need to aim for.

How we weather the holiday seasons depends, in part, on how we manage our feelings of loss. Acknowledging that loss while allowing ourselves to feel the joy in the moment makes it all a bit easier.

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