The holidays can be a time of great joy and family togetherness. For many, however, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years can be a time of great stress and even depression. The holiday season can be very busy and often involves parties, shopping, financial stress and stretching already strained relationships. In 1985, the New York Times published an article on dealing with holiday stress. Even though it is a bit dated, much of what is said in this piece rings true today. Much of the depression seen during holiday times is caused by the creation of unrealistic expectations. Too many of us strive for the Norman Rockwell painting of the “perfect family Christmas”; however, if you are a fan of Chevy Chase, you may remember the movie Christmas Vacation. For most of us, our holiday times are more consistent with the Griswald Family Christmas. Coping with holiday stress is much more manageable if you plan correctly, set limits and realistic expectations.
The Mayo clinic has provided tips for dealing with stress and depression during the holidays. I have explored those that I think are most important to achieve holiday bliss.
1. Acknowledge your feelings: Embrace the fact that the holidays are going to be a stressful time. Admit that family and other guests may be a bit taxing. Certainly, if you have lost a loved one or friend recently make sure to take time to deal with those feelings. Take time to cry and grieve –you do not have to be happy just because its Christmas.
2. Reach out: Feelings of loneliness are common during the holidays. You do not have to deal with these feelings in isolation. Seek out friends, family, church groups and others. Volunteer activities during the holidays can help you feel engaged and less isolated.
3. Be Realistic: Although traditions and rituals are important, times change as children become adults and families move to different geographic regions. Pick important traditions and be flexible. Remember, Cousin Eddie could show up at any time. There is no such thing as the “perfect Christmas”. (Reference the Griswalds).
4. Set aside differences: The holidays are probably not the best time to work through major relationship difficulties. Save these discussions for a later date. Make the most of the holiday time together and overlook the things that normally can be upsetting and strain relationships.
5. Stick to a budget: The worst thing that a family can do is to outspend their budget over the holidays. The credit card bills will arrive in January and they still have to be paid. Setting a realistic budget will minimize financial stress. Alternatives to extravagant gifts include homemade gifts or charitable donations in a person’s name.
6. Plan ahead: Understanding what your holiday obligations look like will help with advance planning. Set aside days for decorating, baking, shopping and cooking. By creating a calendar of activities, you do not get overwhelmed by a long list of tasks that hit you all at once.
7. Continue Healthy habits: The holidays should not be an excuse to “let the wheels come off”. Stick to your normal exercise routine and work to minimize binge eating at parties.
Eat healthy snacks prior to going to holiday parties.
8. Learn to say no: Although it is often difficult to decline invitations for parties, social activities or service projects during the holidays, you must know your limits. Over-extending yourself and allowing no time for rest will only worsen anxiety and depression during the holidays.
9. Take time for YOU: Taking 15 minutes alone during particularly busy holiday times is essential to maintaining your sanity! 5 minute meditation, reading a book in a quiet room or just sitting quietly is important during the hectic holiday season.
10. Seek Professional Help if needed: If you have feelings of anxiety or depression that become overwhelming–if you cannot sleep or have feelings of helplessness or thoughts of suicide, seek professional help. Counselors and therapists can often provide strategies to help you better cope with the stress of the holiday season.
The holidays can be very stressful. For those with underlying anxiety, depression or stress, the holiday season can exacerbate these emotions. Remember, there is no such thing as the “perfect family Christmas”. Just as in the Griswald Family Christmas portrayed in Christmas Vacation, family holiday gatherings are full of unexpected surprises –everybody has a cousin Eddie. The key is to have realistic expectations, have strategies to manage stress and conflict and take time to relax.