If you look forward to the holidays with nothing but happy anticipation, you are among the lucky few. For many people, the holidays bring mixed feelings. Navigating complicated relationships, managing expectations around family traditions and social norms, and figuring out how to stay safe during a lingering and possibly resurgent pandemic is enough to make many of us wish we could skip to January.
Get Straight with Yourself
Before you can figure out how to reduce your holiday stress, it’s important to understand where it comes from—and that requires being honest with yourself. If seeing your family makes you anxious or the idea of hosting a gathering stresses you out, that’s nothing to be ashamed of and you’re not alone. While recognizing and admitting these feelings can be difficult, failing to do so may drive you to act in ways you’re not proud of. And if you’re miserable, you’re likely to make others miserable, too.
There’s no such thing as a wrong feeling. There are, however, harmful and hurtful behaviors.
Take Care of You First
If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you know that if the cabin loses pressure, you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others; the idea being that you can’t help anyone else if you run out of oxygen. Consider the holidays your cabin warning light coming on. If you prioritize your core needs, you’ll be in a better position to support others. Here are some ways to reduce holiday stress.
Break things down into small, manageable tasks.
When you think of the holidays as one big whole, the season can feel overwhelming. If instead you make a detailed to-do list, you can get a truer sense of what’s ahead. Consider the work required to host a big dinner. Tasks may include inviting guests, decorating, making appetizers, making side dishes, making the main meal, making dessert, and cleaning up. The more detailed your list, the easier it is to ask for help; or the clearer it may become that this is something you simply do not have the time and energy to take on.
Ask yourself, “Why?”
As you make your holiday to-do list, ask yourself why each item is on the list. What are you trying to accomplish by exchanging gifts, attending parties, or sharing meals? As you dig into the reasons, you may realize that less stressful or less expensive options can achieve the same goals. For example, I used to make a really yummy snack mix for colleagues every year. It took hours, which was fine when I began the tradition, because I had more free time. Then my life began to change, and family responsibilities demanded more of my attention. So, I switched to Ghirardelli gift baskets. No one said, “Gee, I guess you just don’t appreciate me anymore.” Everyone understood (and some preferred the chocolate).
Remember that opinions are like bellybuttons. Everyone has one and it belongs to them.
As you consider how to reduce your holiday stress, don’t be afraid to let go of old patterns. It’s nice to do things for others, but you should not consistently give up your happiness for theirs. Maybe it’s time for new traditions. Maybe the work needs to be shared among many. Maybe you need to skip family gatherings this year. Once you’ve decided which holiday activities you can manage, let others know as early as possible so they can plan accordingly. It can be hard to set boundaries and it’s a bummer to disappoint people you care about, but pushing beyond your limits isn’t wise.
Seek Support to Avoid Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
If you find yourself depending on drugs, alcohol, overeating, or other unhealthy habits to cope with holiday stress, consider making an appointment with a therapist. Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you are crazy; it makes you care enough about yourself to try something new. More people than ever are working with therapists to learn how to manage life’s challenges. Many people come for two or three sessions, learn some healthy ways to cope, and that’s enough.
Ben Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Behavioral Health Department at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.