Tackling The Stress of The Busy Holiday Season

by Dr. Joan Vernikos
 "A good conscience is a continual Christmas." ~ Benjamin Franklin

The Holiday Season at the end of each year is a wonderful time to count one’s blessings and to connect more deeply with family, co-workers and friends. And perhaps to even feel a kinship and concern for the many.

It’s also a time that challenges many of us to truly be able to enjoy the moments of the season. Often there is a sense of obligation, an unmanageable busyness and financial overwhelm. The ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ cultural expectation to remain happy and upbeat can be trying. Messaging on TV, radio and the internet constantly tells us we should have a well-decorated and tidy home, acquire and distribute gifts to the multitudes, and cheerfully attend social event after social event (beginning with Thanksgiving and running without break until early January). There never is enough time to get it all done – on top of daily commitments, there is little Emma’s Xmas play, decorating, and engaging the neighbors you rarely speak to. Rain, snow, traffic, and crowded shops conspire against you. Everyone seems to be on edge!

It’s easy to feel exhausted just thinking about it all, even before it’s begun. And while it may be a time of re-connecting to what matters, it is often challenging, and for many of us it is sadly the low point of the year.

I want you to know that while there well may be things you “must” do, and it is surely a time of year when a lot is happening, you have a lot more control over your holiday season than you might believe. Much depends on your preparation and decision-making around the season – you ultimately must take responsibility for how you approach this time of the year both outwardly and inwardly. Will you be a bundle of anxiety, facing impossible challenges, rushing around in a daze in rain or snow to the last minute trying to get it all perfect? Or will you have effectively planned and acted, ready to join in the celebration? Will you see time with your family as a gift, or will it make you cringe before you even get together?

Though factors that contribute to your feeling stressed are somewhat under your control, they come anyway. It is easy to fret and sleep poorly. And especially to eat in a way that makes you feel terrible about yourself and this whole holiday celebrating. Pressure to enjoy the time can make one sink into gloom.

So, what can you do to have a more enjoyable holiday season? Here are a few things I have learned during my blessedly long lifetime that I think are worthy of your consideration.

Manage Your Time

Good time management is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Get a clear idea of what you will or will not commit to as early as possible and you will be much more likely to stay grounded during the holiday season.
Start early. Begin with a list of your key people, shop for the holidays all year, and have a central place you store these gifts.
  • Hold a family meeting about gift wish-lists after Halloween if it hasn’t already been discussed.Talk about what you really enjoy about the holidays, and how you might change your approach to better enjoy them.
  • Budget sanely. Determine what you can realistically afford to spend. Set an upper limit for gifts for everyone. Many people are in difficult financial situations today. If you find yourself stretched, either send only a card, or consider making something instead of purchasing gifts. Framed photos, fruit/health baskets and more are wonderful ways to connect with friends and family. And when people tell you that they really don’t need anything, listen! Consider making a donation in their name to a cause that matters to them.
  • Plan and publish a household social calendar for the holidays and put it on the fridge or bulletin board. Make sure that everyone knows there is a procedure in place to handle changes because there will be a lot of those!
  • Delegate. Ask for help from loved ones or friends.
  • Keep a list of what you need to accomplish in the coming days, starting with Thanksgiving. Review and update this before bed each evening, acknowledging your ability to get only so much done.
  • Well before the end of year work on one or two meaningful resolutions for the New Year. Consider them as you go through the month of December. You will feel more upbeat when January comes around.
  • Keep things as simple as possible. Remember: you do not need to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Joneses are probably stressing out about now!

Take Care of Yourself
By planning effectively, things will unfold more manageably and the inevitable curve-balls will be easier to cope with. But you still need to look at yourself and what keeps you going. Here are a few suggestions.
  • Seeking the cooperation of friends and family in planning the holiday season, with an emphasis on real enjoyment, will direct everyone towards shared, more positive results.
  • Keep plenty of healthy snacks around the house and at work. If it’s green or an easily eaten fruit, stock it.
  • Eat some of those healthy snacks before you go to social events. It’s harder to eat 2 cookies, 4 deviled eggs and drink a glass of eggnog before dinner, if you had a banana and some almonds just before the party.
  • Factor in time to do the things that matter to you and those close to you. Read, have a quiet movie night at home (or watch holiday classics together) or play games. Or get a massage! These can all take the bite out of a seemingly never-ending schedule of obligatory activities over the holidays. My son’s favorite is going for a quick, hot soak wherever he can find one, including the bath tub.
  • Buck tradition. While you may still enjoy the cookies everywhere else, plan a sugar-lite holiday season at home.
  • Moderate your alcohol consumption (and value your sleep). Or don’t drink at all. You’ll rest and look better, connect more meaningfully with others, and be able to handle challenges as they arise. Either way, make your rest a priority as best you can. Watching "Leno" after a busy day may or may not be what you most need.
  • Commit to making the time to do some regular physical activity daily, even if you do less of it than normal. For instance, make a family walk part of your holiday events. Your dog will appreciate it too.
  • Pause regularly to reflect on what is going on at any given time, and how you are reacting to it. Take small regular time-outs, breathing deeply.
  • If you are a regular meditator or have a physical, eastern practice (like Tai Chi, Yoga or Qigong) keep it in your schedule as best you can. (Perhaps consider starting one as a resolution for the New Year).

Let It Go
Accept that it is just fine to feel sentimental at this time of year.

This is when we tend to contemplate our lives most deeply. Indeed, it is often the time of year when people may feel most grateful and peaceful, yet conversely may also feel despondent. If you have felt down or depressed in the past during the holidays, I recommend cultivating the intention to be more aware of how you feel during this coming season. It is quite common to dread the holiday season, finding it easier to withdraw. Even if you feel generally positive this time of year, there may be activities or people with whom you still have difficulty engaging. Making a sincere effort to be genuinely open to others’ feelings and situations can have a profound impact on our own state of mind and perhaps more importantly will let those close to us know that we care about them.  This is what the holiday spirit is about – to extend the warmth we feel for those closest to us to include many others.

Each one of us would like to celebrate a joyous holiday season. Finding ways to minimize stress is key to experiencing times we all wish for, ones filled with love, sharing, gratitude and compassion, and ones we will recall fondly for years to come.

Improving your Wellbeing Through Health Coaching

   "I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum potential."
Bob Nardelli, CEO, Home Depo

As a teenager in Egypt I had a swim coach who encouraged me to train when I wanted to play, to exercise when I would rather have played backgammon with the old men at the club, and managed to build my confidence and win races. All sports have coaches so that athletes put on their top performances.

Today coaching is not just for athletes. There are coaches for every imaginable issue; from personal relationships to nutrition, weight management to how to find your mate. Even some surgeons now have coaches. And in the short time since its inception life coaching no longer seems so flaky. There are TV shows featuring coaching ('Starting Over', and 'Get The Guy’), and even spoofs about coaching on the John Stewart show. Coaching is now mainstream.

Why Coaching?
Well, it’s pretty simple. We go to the doctor for a prescription or a priest for confession, a dietitian, a shrink or a counselor or even a self-help book for the answers to our problems. But no matter how good the advice, all of these tools suffer from a common weakness - they rely on the individual to take action on their own and make the commitment to act on the advice. And consider that little of the information received is customized to one’s unique situation. This is where coaching differs. The main reason - it is emerging as the way to get results.  People who are serious about change know that they are responsible to make it happen themselves. They also know that they may not be able to do it on their own.

People who do turn to coaching most often benefit from improved clarity and focus around their goals, discipline, direction, guidance and understanding, and ultimately achieve things they want but couldn't on their own. Some of us might have the skill set and support to eventually get there without assistance but it can be so much more effective to let a coach help us, and often cheaper in the long run and with lasting effects because we (with the guidance of the coach) arrived at the solution. With a coach, results almost always improve – often dramatically.

Why Health Coaching?
Happiness, the enjoying of our lives, is what we all seek. Everything we do, whether wise or not, is in support of this overarching desire. Often happiness is used synonymously with “well-being” and this begins with good health and healthy habits. But there are few among us who truly prioritize our well-being, both physical and mental.

Health coaching has become more popular in the last several years in the US, especially for the treatment of particular conditions and in corporate settings where the efficacy of health coaching has been shown to be cost and productivity-effective. It generally includes a personalized program designed to improve your health and sense of wellness, while developing your ability to manage life’s curveballs as they arise. A health coach can generally help you with:

  • Stress management
  • Diet, nutrition and eating habits
  • Weight management
  • Sleep problems
  • Physical Fitness
  • Family and social relationships
  • Work/Life balance
  • Maintaining independence with age

Where traditionally education and advice directs information at you, coaching by contrast guides you to discuss what is most troubling about your health, what you most want to change, what support you have to foster change and what obstacles or difficulties must be minimized or removed to advance healthy behaviors. It does this by providing:
  • Support
  • Structure
  • Accountability
  • A sense of accomplishment
Over time other benefits will arise that are not anticipated, not least, the cost of your medical care.
Did you know that 70% of our medical costs are due to four factors that we can control:
poor stress management, physical inactivity, tobacco and alcohol use, and food choices.

In the coming weeks I’ll share more about why I have become a proponent for health coaching, and how it’s influencing my activities today.

We each have the power to be well and age well, whatever our genetic make-up or specific problems. In this approach you become the nexus.

Healing yourself, rewiring your brain, adopting new health habits, feeling good about yourself and your relationships – no one else can do it for you. But a qualified health coach can support you through the process.