Helping News                                                  December, 2011   Issue 41

Holiday stress: how to cope and enjoy the season

Christina Villarreal, Ph.D.
Oakland Mental Health Examiner 
November 18, 2010 - 
Holiday season causing you to feel stress? 

For many, the first signs of holiday stress emerge around Halloween when signs of the holiday season become evident in retail stores.  Seeing what's in store for the coming months can evoke a sense of urgency in us, with many people feeling like there isn't time to fit in everything.  Unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others, coupled with the pressure this can place upon relationships can culminate in elevated levels of mental and physical stress.  Learn to recognize and manage triggers of holiday stress. Recognize common triggers of holiday stress

Strained relationships.  The holiday season is typically a time when extended family members spend more time together.  Leaving normal routines, hectic travel, and decreased personal space can all lead to conflict with the family members we ironically, want to enjoy.  Even close-knit families who rarely experience conflict can begin to show signs of 'too much togetherness' when individuals are experiencing holiday related stress.  Further, when family members come together, it's common for people to fall back into ‘family roles’ that can re-open old wounds or conflicts.  Even spouses/partners and children can get caught in the cross-fire of family turmoil, bringing on feelings of guilt and resentment.

Isolation & loneliness.  Sometimes it's the lack of family that can feel lead us to feel lonely during the holiday season.  When the whole world seems to be getting together with loved ones, those of us who are closer to friends than family can feel isolated and abandoned when friends leave town for the holidays.

Overindulgence.  An influx of holiday parties and gift exchanges can lead many people to eat, drink, and spend in ways that prove to be self-destructive.  Overindulgence can have dire and long lasting consequences (debt, weight gain, unsafe behaviors, memories of embarrassing & unsavory behavior) that can linger long after the season is over.

Physical demands.  Many of us feel overwhelmed with the demands of holiday traditions- shopping, sending cards, entertaining, visiting relatives and volunteering activities.  Our regular antidotes to stress such as restful sleep and exercise are dropped as we struggle to keep up with an overflowing schedule. High levels of physical distress also leaves us susceptible to seasonal viruses, which can render our holiday plans futile.

How to minimize holiday stress and enjoy the season

Be creative. The holidays do NOT have to remain rigidly the same, year after year. By opening yourself up to change and letting go of traditions that have become too difficult or expensive, you afford yourself an opportunity to shape your holiday experience to reflect your current lifestyle and personality.

Be true to your feelings.  If you've experienced a loss this year, or you can't be with loved ones, it's normal to feel sadness and grief. Don't try to force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.  Take time out to reflect and take care of yourself in a way that feels authentic, rather than 'putting on a happy face.'

Connect with others meaningfully. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events that can lend support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others who are in need is a great way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Make peace with differences. Work on accepting family and friends as they are, even when they don't live up to your expectations.  Take a break from airing your grievances/grudges, even if it's only for a brief period of time, so you can reacquaint yourself with family members without the stress of fighting.

Anticipate your limits.  Think back to previous years and estimate how much together time you and your family can take before things begin to sour.  It's perfectly acceptable to set limits with others, including forgoing family gatherings if you suspect things will turn out disastrously.  Perhaps it's safer to visit individuals on a one on one basis.
Attempt to stick to a budget.  Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can realistically afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Keep reminding yourself that spending money will NOT not buy you or anyone else long lasting happiness.

Learn to say NO. Saying yes when you you'd prefer to say no will cause you to feel resentful and exhausted. Sometimes saying no can lead to conflict, but remind yourself that by saying no, you are giving yourself and others an opportunity to accept realistic expectations.

Try not to completely abandon healthy, safe habits. The holiday season does NOT have to be a free-for-all of decadence and risk taking behaviors.  Holiday food and alcohol can certainly be enjoyable, but remember there can be too much of a good thing, since overindulging always comes with consequences.  

Seek professional help when necessary.  If you find yourself feeling chronically sad or anxious, overwhelmed with physical problems, unable to sleep, irritable and unable to enjoy things you used to, it's likely time to seek help from your doctor or a mental health professional. The holiday season should be a time of enjoyment, however you choose to celebrate them. By taking steps to prevent stress, you are lending yourself a renewed chance to make this year better than ever before.

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