According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 38 percent of people say their stress level increases during the holidays. Marybeth Evans, a licensed clinical social worker at OSF HealthCare Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Evergreen Park, discusses why this is, and how to navigate holiday stress.
“I think there is a lot of pressure on families — kind of a cultural pressure — to have great holidays and high expectations, and I think that’s overblown. Simplify the holidays so that everybody can actually enjoy the company of one another and not worry about the menu or the gifts. And maybe if you really do want to do those things, still find a way to simplify it,” says Evans.
From spending money on gifts to juggling family gatherings and everything in between, Evans recommends sitting down and taking a look at what you find special or important about the holidays and focusing on those things – and managing your expectations of the holiday season early on can help reduce stress levels by keeping things in perspective, remembering what’s important, and taking time for yourself.
If you have a family member who chooses to forego the full-fledged family gathering this year, Evans recommends spending time with them on other days throughout the holiday season by having a meal with them, watching a holiday movie, or doing some other meaningful activity. Additionally, sending greeting cards to your loved ones during this time of year is a wonderful way to let them know you are thinking of them during this time of year.
In addition to the stress and anxiety many people feel during the holidays, some people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may experience a heightened level of negative emotions as they try to navigate their seasonal depression while also trying to enjoy the holidays.
Evans recommends checking in on your loved ones and including them in holiday plans even if they choose not to attend — and to not pressure or guilt your family or friends into participating in activities if they are not up to it.
And if you are one of the many Americans who suffers from SAD, or who is experiencing heightened stress and anxiety levels surrounding this holiday season, make sure to sit back, take time for yourself, and experience the holidays how you want to.
“I think there are always things to be grateful for — even in sad or stressful times. So, if the best thing you can be grateful for is that you still can get together with your family or that you have a roof over your head, then that’s something to be grateful for,” Evans says.
Six Coping Strategies
Rick Germann, MA LCPC, at AMITA Health Center for Mental Health, offers these key strategies to help ease stress:
- Watch Out for “Shoulds”
Often, the source of our holiday stress is not the actual event but rather our expectations for how that event should happen, or how other people should act. We might dream of living a Hallmark Channel movie, but the reality is that infants might cry in church, not every present will be met with excitement and the turkey might come out dry.
To help prevent these cognitive sinkholes, it is important to listen to yourself and what you are telling yourself. Buzzwords to watch out for include “should,” “must” and “have to” as these are definitive terms that do not allow for any flexibility to view or understand a situation in any other way.
Instead, practice using terms like “it would be nice if…” or “I would prefer that…” This will allow you to recognize your expectations for a situation while still understanding that things do not always go the way you want them to.
- ‘Tis the season to be transparent
You’re not the only person who might have unrealistic expectations about the holidays. Kids can be especially vulnerable to this when it comes to gifts. If the threat of disappointment or a total meltdown on Christmas morning is compounding the holiday stress you’re already feeling, transparency is the best policy.
Be open about what (and how much) your kids should expect. Here’s one way you might go about this: help your kids write their wish list. Help them prioritize what’s important to them and find creative ways to steer them away from anything too unrealistic. You can even turn it into a teachable moment about what it truly means to give.
Have your kids pair their wish list with a “donation list” and ask them what they’d give from their list to a child in need.
- Give the gift of radical acceptance
Money is a perennial source of stress, and it becomes especially acute around the holidays as bills pile up for presents, food and more. Luckily, the solution is free.
“Radical acceptance” is a term used to describe the moment when you stop fighting reality and accept it completely. Not resign yourself to it, but truly accept it with your mind, heart and soul. By living and breathing an “it is what is” mindset, you’ll be surprised at how creative you can get within a limited budget.
The holidays can be expensive, but they don’t have to be.
- Rehearse your worst-case scenarios
When we’re in a stressful situation, it’s easy for the mind to catastrophize and jump to the worst possible outcome. Unfortunately, this kind of “all or nothing” thinking can be its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take some time beforehand to cognitively rehearse what you think your experience will be like and how you will react or respond to various situations that might arise. If the roast burns, order Chinese food. If there’s a delay in your Amazon delivery, find alternative gifts at a local store and return your delivery later.
This kind of practice will make the real deal much easier to navigate.
- May your days be mindful and bright
We all have people in our lives who push our buttons. Many of us dread being forced to spend time with them during the holidays. If this sounds like you, make mindfulness your best friend.
Mindfulness is the art of living in the moment and not being bound to your memories of the past or your concerns about the future.
Block everything else out and allow this moment to be about nothing else. This cognitive “time out” helps us regain our thoughts and composure during stressful times.
- Make time for ghosts of Christmas present
If you’ve lost a loved one during the past year, the first holiday season without them can be especially difficult. It can seem like everywhere you look you’ll find painful reminders that they’re not there. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty that they’re grieving during a time of year when everyone is happy.
It is OK and natural to feel sad from a loss. So instead of thinking that you cannot experience sad emotions, accept them — but give yourself some control by allotting a time in the day to go ahead and experience them. If you have company coming over, try and schedule a time for yourself a few hours prior where you can think about your loved one purposefully. Look at the old photo albums, cry, pray, give in to your emotions fully. Doing so can be quite cathartic, which in turn can help you maintain composure later on when you’re with company.
(SOURCES: OSF Healthcare News and Advocate Aurora Healthcare)