Coping With Holiday Stress

Don't let that bah-humbug feeling spoil the festive season for you.

     Stress may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's, but too often the holiday season is a letdown because we have not prepared ourselves for the three main pressures of the season of glad tidings: time, money, and emotions. Here are some tips for surviving and thriving:

1. Set priorities. Determine what elements need to be present for the holiday to have meaning for you. Do you see the holiday as a primarily religious or spiritual occasion? a time to relax with close family? an opportunity to get together with friends and extended family in a party atmosphere? People often over-extend themselves during the holiday season by pursuing all of these goals simultaneously and with equal intensity. Because of the limited time available, this often means that "getting everything done" becomes the only goal, and the meaning and fun of the activities themselves are lost. Setting priorities means having the ability to say no to the expectations of others when they do not agree with our own desires, it means being able to resist the media-influenced pressure to have a "perfect Christmas" or "picture-perfect" Thanksgiving feast, and it can mean insisting that others be more responsible for their own holiday celebration by helping out.

2. Plan ahead. Rely on written lists of things to do and set aside some time each day to accomplish tasks and run errands. Avoid waiting until the last minute; the stress of last-minute shopping and organizing can be enormous and we typically spend more money than necessary when there is no time to comparison-shop. Planning ahead also involves setting limits: Declare a deadline for kids to express their gift wishes and then stick to it; if money is tight, agree to spend only a certain amount or to buy only a certain number of presents; consider creative low-cost or no-cost gift alternatives, like baby-sitting "vouchers" for a friend or a massage "coupon" for your spouse. And finally, when doing your planning, make sure to allow time for relaxation, quiet time, napping, and fun.

3. Keep your expectations realistic. We commonly hope for too much of a positive emotional payoff from the holidays. We anticipate a magical experience, gear up for it for weeks ahead of time, and when the celebration that lasts only a few hours is over we find ourselves wondering "Is that all there is?" Remember that the more we pay for something, the more we expect, so don't "pay" for Christmas or Hanukkah by sacrificing November. You deserve to fully live and cherish each month and each day, and by concentrating on living in the here and now you can keep the holidays in perspective.
   To compound matters, people often feel guilty or inadequate when they experience "negative" emotions such as sadness and anger at holiday time instead of the joy, merriment, and good will we have been trained to expect. There are, however, some very good reasons to expect these feelings during the holidays. Sad feelings are frequent when we are remembering a loved one who is not near. Wistful, bittersweet feelings are common when we become aware of the passage of time and compare past celebrations with the present. Tension and frustration are the almost inevitable results of travel and crowded living arrangements. Spending more time than usual with family can stir up old conflicts with them and within ourselves. And, of course, saying goodbye at the end of the celebration can leave us feeling lonely and depleted. Prepare yourself for these feelings and if they happen do not judge yourself and attempt to suppress them. To allow yourself to feel all of your feelings is to be fully alive, and besides, the more you squelch a feeling the stronger it will become.

     In closing, a reminder that taking good care of oneself physically is crucial for successful stress reduction. So, try to eat sensibly, drink only in moderation, sleep reasonable hours, and stick with your regular exercise routine during the upcoming holiday season. Try these relaxation procedures and make one of them part of your daily routine during stressful times.