Managing Stress During The Holidays

Cathi Cohen, LCSW

The holidays can be at once exciting and stressful; magical and daunting; loving and tension filled. During the holidays, we gather at the hearth with family and friends to celebrate warm and special traditions. How lovely, sweet, and uncomplicated. Right? Wrong! Research says that the holidays frequently lead to stress and depression. The triumvirate — finances, relationships, and physical load leading up to the festivities — unite for uncertain results. Especially during these challenging economic times, pressures to spend, spend, spend are enormous. At the same time, there are dinners to prepare for, events to attend, and relatives to entertain. The multitude of demands may seem endless. And, on top of it, the holidays have a unique and wonderful way of revealing your family’s fault lines. This is prime time for miscommunications and hurt feelings to run rampant, leaving us by December’s end feeling potentially burnt out and exhausted.

So, how can we ensure that our holiday season proceeds without a hitch? Try these strategies to minimize stress and keep you present (no pun intended) during the holidays:

1. Plan Ahead

I used to tease my mother because she writes her holiday “to do” lists in August. By Halloween, her presents have been bought, meals have been planned, and travel itinerary spelled out in detail. I, on the other hand, shop for my turkey at noon on Thanksgiving Day and haven’t given a thought to my family’s holiday vacation plans until the week before. I used to view myself as “spontaneous” and “excellent under pressure.” Now I know that defining my behavior as “free spirited” and tension-free is simply my way of avoiding the procrastinator label. Over the last number of years, I’ve noticed that the hustle and bustle of fulfilling my last minute plans is not fun. In fact, it’s downright stressful. I’m already more relaxed this season as I’ve adopted more of my Mom’s planning strategies. I’m writing out lists in advance, maintaining a holiday calendar, and getting my holiday shopping finished early.

2. Pause Before Saying “Yes”

“Can we do the holiday office party at your house?” “Sure.” “Will you coordinate the Secret Santa event this year?” “Sure.” “You’ll sell Christmas ornaments at Giant for the high school band. Right?” “Right.” Taken individually, holiday events and responsibilities are no big deal. They can be fun, in fact. Taken together, on the other hand, they can be grueling. Just say “No.” Watch as your stress level decreases with each “No” you allow yourself.

3. Create A Budget And Stick To It

Have you ever bought additional holiday gifts just because they were on sale? Does your last-minute shopping lead you to buy impulsively, thus spending much more than you intended? After the holidays, does it take you weeks (even months) to recover? Join the club. This year, try to make a list of everyone you need to buy gifts for and how much you want to spend on each person. Then, stick to it! You’ll be amazed at how much money you save.

4. Keep The Lines Of Communication Open

Hold a family meeting before the holidays to coordinate activities, efforts, and responsibilities. Let your kids weigh in on the festivities. You may be surprised how easily ideas flow when family members are allowed the opportunity and are feeling heard. Assign each family member a role in preparing for the holidays. Even the little ones can participate by setting the holiday table. The older ones are great for researching gifts online. As exciting as the holidays are for kids, they are also stressful. Take more time to listen than to talk. Your kids are going to need to know that you are available to them. And remember: ALL of your family members are going to need some alone time to de-compress.

5. Know Your Hot Buttons

There is nothing like family to stir things up and make you feel like a child again. You may be a 40-year-old mother of three wonderful children of your own, but when you’re around your siblings and parents for any length of time, you become the baby again and slide fluidly back into your role as a child. Family dynamics can be complicated and painful. Prepare yourself for potential conflict by avoiding your hot buttons whenever possible. Try role-playing challenging conversations with a friend or significant other ahead of time. Nobody is at their best when taken off guard.

The closer you are to imagining a realistic vision of your holidays, the less stressed out you will be. I hope the above holiday stress-busters will help you enjoy and relax through this holiday season.