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.

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