The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Keeping stress at bay during the holidays

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    Nancy Sokoler

Ah, the holidays: family gatherings around a bountiful table, homes exquisitely decorated and piles of brightly wrapped gifts. Except we’re dreading Uncle Bob’s political rants. The decorations still sit untouched in their boxes. And we’re frenzied looking for the perfect gifts that won’t put us into serious debt.

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. And it can be. But the holidays can also be fraught with emotional landmines and unattainable expectations. Here are some strategies for avoiding common holiday-related pitfalls.

Plan Ahead

“The holidays stir up old history and family tensions,” says Stephanie Morales, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “If you have an issue with a family member, try to get in front of it by having a conversation with that person.”

For example, if you don’t want to hear Uncle Bob pontificate about his favorite presidential candidate, call him beforehand. “I’m looking forward to celebrating with you,” you could tell him. “And I know how enthusiastic you are about the elections. But our politics are different, and I’d rather focus on the things we have in common. At Christmas, will you tell me more about the general store Grandma and Grandpa once owned?”

Set Realistic Expectations

Stephanie, founder of The Mother Nurture Center in Redondo Beach, notes that we can get overwhelmed by what we think we should be doing or experiencing. “We sometimes have fantasies about what the holiday season is supposed to look like and feel sad when our experience doesn’t measure up. Or we might have memories of perfect childhood holidays, except those memories aren’t entirely accurate. We get frustrated when we can’t create ideal experiences,” she says. 

Stress can also come from perceived obligations. (I’ve always hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Mary will be offended if I don’t go to her tree-decorating party. The latkes have to be homemade, not store-bought.) 

Focus on the areas you can control. Pace yourself by deciding which activities you’ll participate in and which you’ll forgo, which traditions to keep and which to modify. Try not to expect a picture-perfect holiday or anticipate dramatic family reconciliations. 

Make a holiday budget in advance. To save money, think about creating hand-made gifts. Or to conserve your energy while honoring the spirit of the season, consider making donations to charities meaningful to the recipients.

Take Care of Yourself

As you get immersed in the holiday bustle, remember to maintain healthy habits. “Get out in nature,” Stephanie suggests. “Sunlight increases your serotonin levels and can help prevent depression. Take a walk each day to help mitigate the stressors and symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

She also recommends finding outlets to express your feelings, such as talking with a friend, writing in a journal or seeing a therapist. “Get things off your chest. Letting off steam can help reduce the tension you might otherwise experience at holiday events.”

Don’t forget to get plenty of sleep, eat healthy meals and work regular physical activity into your daily routine. Of course, if you think you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out. “Just like any other illness, if you get on it early, the prognosis is much better,” says Stephanie.

Focus on the Spirit of the Season

The season is about giving, so look for opportunities to give that resonate with you. Perhaps you can help spearhead a toy drive or help prepare and serve food at a homeless shelter. Churches and social service organizations can put you in touch with a family to “adopt” by providing gifts and holiday meals.

With some advanced planning, realistic expectations and self-care, holiday time can have less “Bah humbug!” and more “Ho, ho, ho!”