Managing Holiday Stress

How to Find Some Comfort and Joy

(and Better Manage Your Stress) this Holiday Season
By: Dr. Deborah Anderson

In theory, the holiday season seems so enticing and fun, doesn’t it? A beautifully decorated living room, perfectly set table with a pristine-looking meal and homemade baking, gorgeously wrapped gifts and a blazing fireplace. Yet, nowhere in the fine print do they mention the hours of slaving over a hot stove, struggles to find the “perfect” gift for that special someone, or waiting in checkout lines. And all of this on top of our usual to-do lists. Not to mention the distress of getting through the season if one’s romantic or family of origin relationships are less than ideal. It can be so overwhelming and filled with a sense of pressure, rather than be a time of joy.

Remember that you, and life, are perfectly imperfect. Start by letting go of the “shoulds” – these are your rules about how things “should” be. For example, “I should be the perfect hostess” or “My relationship with my mother/father should be different”.

Let’s begin with the practical things first. Since there is only so much time in a day, so much money to spend, etc., start by taking a few moments to sit quietly and ask, “What truly brings me joy?” See what comes into your awareness. Notice how your body feels when you think of certain activities – is your body tensing up or is a smile appearing across your face? Let the wisdom of the body and your emotions be your guide this year. Rather than all of the bells and whistles, pick your top 3-5 activities or tasks and do them really well and let the rest go. I’d wager a bet that your loved ones would rather you had some free time to just “hang out” with them rather than being a grouch who is overtired. If you’re someone who has trouble saying no, think of this as the perfect opportunity from life to limit the number of invitations you accept, the number of dishes or types of cookies you make, or anything else for that matter.

On the emotional front, the holidays inevitably stir up a lot of negative emotions for many people, particularly anger and sadness – the emotions of grief. Grief happens not only when we lose something tangible (a loved one dies, for example) but also when there is the “loss of the ideal” (we did not get something we wanted such as a life partner or good relationship with a parent). Start by asking yourself if there is something within your control that you can do to change your circumstances? For example, have you been putting in the effort to find your mate? If not, create a plan of action and follow through. In some cases, we may never get what we’d hoped for and it is likely we will experience some degree of loss year after year. While you may not be able to control how your a relative treats you, you can control the amount of time you spend with that person or how you think about their behavior; or, you can create new holiday traditions with people outside of your family. Regardless of the circumstances, the most important thing is to allow yourself to feel your emotions (rather than run away from them) – this will help you to move past them. Sit with each feeling for a few minutes and then choose to let it go. This might take some practice but this skill can be learned.

Whether it’s coming from emotional or physical distress, when our stress response (fight-or-flight) is chronically triggered, our immune systems are usually weakened and we become more susceptible to get sick or to stay sick. So make time for some activities that are healing and nurturing to you – take a nap, go for a massage, read a good book, or do some yoga or other type of exercise.

Our myths and stories, like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, have at their core an idealized version of some truth or beauty in life. Take the good from them but keep perspective that they are just stories that do not always fit with the messiness of real life created by flawed human beings. Honor that this time of year is challenging to you and choose to be kind to yourself. Take the time to nurture and pamper yourself. And remember, in the big scheme of life, every emotion, every circumstance is temporary.

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