Celebrating the Holidays: Tips to Lower Stress

Whether it be Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Winter Solstice or Festivus for the rest of us, most cultures and communities have a winter celebration involving faith, bright lights, family, friends and food. Umm, lots of food.

Even though I grew up in a secular family, winter holidays were one of the best times of the year for me. As a youngster, I loved the coloured lights, the decorations in the shops, and the goodwill, though truthfully, such happiness was often the result of people like my aunt dipping her mug into the fortified eggnog a bit too frequently. Regardless, most children will be flush with the excitement of holidays.

However, when I became an adult, things were noticeably different. The treasured cousin became argumentative to the point of offending guests with his behaviour. Family get-togethers were initially happy occasions, but could quickly be fraught with re-opened hurts, new quarrels, misunderstandings, and disappointments. Holidays can also remind friends and families about who is no longer with us--loss may be one of the emotions that is amplified during holiday get-togethers.

The worries can be multiplied by getting the “right gift”, the slighted family member, travel complications, the unreasonable expectations of “happiness”, or the unseen workload to make the holidays special. I clearly recall my mother’s intricate holiday meals also had their share of disasters, resulting in her tears just visible through the billowing kitchen smoke. (I won’t regale you with the year I tried making latkes for Chanukah and set the oil on fire.)

With each passing year, the fatigue of preparing yet another holiday supper left her weary and exhausted, slumped in a chair with only the promise of doing it again the following year. It surely took the gloss off the “most wonderful time of the year”.

As a therapist, I’ve worked with many clients who have had reservations about the winter holidays, and I'm sympathetic, having had several challenging holidays myself. However, holidays can be fun for bigger kids too! I have worked out how to enjoy them--family and all--without the same amount of stress as in years past. Not surprisingly, it has to do with a few deceptively simple changes.


It's not really about the buck, is it?

Holidays, whether winter or otherwise, can be a huge expense with costs that may quickly become out of control. Some family and friends may be on a fixed income, yet
feel the expectation of purchasing beyond their means, including travel expenses.

Pride can sometimes dampen the desire to cut back on spending, which can create pressure and stress. For example: many Canadians spend the New Year paying back their holiday debt. Vendors encourage people to "Spend, spend, spend!”, but this doesn't have to be your belief.

This year, talk to your family or friends about having a limit if gifts are being bought. For instance, no more than $20. It's amazing how creative people can become and how interesting the presents are when the budget is fixed!

Other people may wish to forgo presents entirely and focus on dinner or even the lovely opportunity to connect with people they haven't seen in a while, which is a gift in itself.

Share the load

My mother embodied the holiday spirit, but after overseeing countless duties, she would be exhausted. Having one person over-functioning into a coma isn’t necessary at any time of year. Each friend or family member can share the load by bringing a dish of food or helping with preparation and cleaning up.

Communicating a new way of having a special meal will mean hosts can place more emphasis on catching up with family and friends. Sharing tasks is a great way to create a memorable dinner communally. It's also fun to see what others may bring to the table!

It might be different, but breaking tradition can become a new tradition during holidays.

Adjust your expectations

Children and adults often have high expectations about what holidays may bring. Adjusting expectations by talking with others about how you’d like to manage those expectations and then committing to any changes can be helpful.

If or when things don’t go as planned, take a breath, gain your composure, and refrain from acting on any perceived or real disappointment. Instead, reflect on the situation with a fresh perspective.

Many of my clients express they can’t last for three or four hours, let alone three or four days with their families, but try to soldier on anyway. That expectation might be wildly unrealistic, given that most families have times of conflict.

For some, a better approach might be to visit with family and limit how long you stay. Allow yourself the choice to leave and return the same or next day. This provides the best chance of having a non-conflictual visit, likely enjoyed by all and sets the stage for the following year.

Manage yourself

Often, people experience strain and pressure as they relate with others in an attempt to make the holidays perfect.

Instead, talk about making some changes;

  • Try to reduce the expectations of yourself and others and focus on simplicity wherever possible.
  • Ensure that you have time for yourself.
  • Commit to all the “self” activities to de-stress mind and body.
  • Go for a walk, which most people can do anytime or anywhere.

It’s a good strategy when agitated and allows for some perspective. Spend time reading, listening to music or doing whatever provides you a sense of calm or focus.

When we are thoughtful instead of reactive, there’s a much better chance of enjoying the company of others around you. It’s simple advice, but during the holidays, many people report overextending themselves, which may increase the chance of conflict. It’s best to monitor your energy and patience, and, if necessary, intervene on yourself.

Going Solo

Truthfully, some of the best winter holidays I’ve had were ones spent by myself. I firmly believe in treating oneself as a best friend, and seasonal holidays aren’t any different.

It can be refreshing to sleep in, have a special meal, get to that book you’ve been wanting to read, binge-watch a favourite program, go on a day trip, or take on a home project. Being active, even on holiday, is good for our mental health. It’s an underestimated skill to be happy and content with ourselves.

Though holidays can be stressful for many, there is a quietness during this time of year that people can find peaceful and contemplative.

Families are strange beings

It’s true that the aunt, distant cousin or grandparent with the horrifyingly embarrassing behaviour will likely do something outrageous during the holidays. We can’t choose our families--much as we might wish to. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t choose how to behave around our families.

Seasonal holidays may test our patience or trigger a slew of past or present issues. However, we have the ability to make informed decisions about what we can do when things aren’t going right. We can reflect on the most important aspects of the holidays, whatever that might be.

Though these are just suggested tips, you may wish to create ones that are appropriate for you, your family, and your friends to make the most memorable time together.

Note: This article reflects the writer’s opinions and does not replace specific advice from a health professional. If you are struggling with your mental health at any time, please contact a counsellor, local healthcare provider, or any of the free provincial mental health support lines for assistance.

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