Did you know December is National Stress-Free Family Holidays Month?
No? Actually, I didn’t either. My first thought upon learning about this was “Is that even possible?”
My conclusion, after some thought, is that it is rather unrealistic to think that any individual or family could completely escape the holiday season with no stress, but heck, it’s certainly worth a try to maintain our mental health as much as possible during a stressful time. Even mental health professionals could use a few tips to maintain our own mental health during the holidays.
First though, before we get into how to maintain our mental health during the holiday season, the initial pertinent question to answer is: Why is the holiday season so stressful for many people?
The potential answers are many and varied, but, for many people, the holiday season is the perfect storm of overblown expectations of beautiful, memorable, Instagram-worthy festivities directly colliding with the reality of stresses incurred by traveling, socializing with family/friends, financial woes, rich food, gift-giving anxieties, fear of missing out (FOMO), being out of our typical routines, fatigue, worry about weight gain, and dealing with various Grinches in our lives.
In addition, for those who have lost a loved one, the holidays bring up additional grief, sadness, and bittersweet memories, adding an entirely new dimension of stress to the holiday season.
As if all the above didn’t already cause enough reasons for holiday stress, COVID-19 has upped the ante. Now, many festivities are cancelled, postponed, changed, or fraught with tough questions regarding masking and vaccinations, often with contention and the potential for anger and conflict lurking barely under the surface.
So, what can be done? First, it’s important to recognize that stress can never be completely eliminated from the holiday season (or from life in general), and a completely stress-free situation (or life) is an unrealistic goal to aspire to.
However, there are many ways to help maintain our mental health during the holiday season. Note that not all of these suggestions will apply for everyone nor appropriate for every situation, but hopefully, at least some of the following tips could help us make it into the New Year while maintaining our mental health as much as possible:
Tip 1: Define what the holidays mean to you
Define what you want the holidays to mean for you and, if applicable, your immediate family/loved ones. Not what Great Aunt Ethel dictates, not what your family has been doing since practically the beginning of time, not what you think you’re “supposed to do” based on glamorous depictions on TV and magazines—no, what I mean is: Define what YOU and your immediate family/loved ones actually want for yourselves. Do you want to
... host a small gathering or a large party?
... celebrate in your own home or some other place?
... celebrate on another specified date with your extended family and celebrate with your immediate family/loved ones on the actual holiday date?
... do something totally different this year and maybe book an Airbnb out of town?
... exchange gifts, skip it altogether, or donate to a charity?
These questions are just a few examples of the possibilities. There are no actual holiday rules, despite what it might feel like. Try to take a few minutes, breathe, clear your head, and daydream: If you could choose anything at all to do during the holiday season, what would it be? If you have immediate family/loved ones to consider, consult with them and do the same exercise together, asking, “How can we make our own traditions—or change it up every year?” You only have one life (well, at least that we know of, and reincarnation is way beyond the scope of this post). Remember: You may choose your own time and your own activities wisely, and you have the right to say “no” to anything you don’t want to do.
Tip 2: Define what self care is for you
Everyone and their mama is preaching the gospel of self-care right now as an antidote to most of the world’s ills; and, of course, self-care is very important and definitely should be a regular part of our lives. But it should be noted that defining what self-care means is a very individual thing. For example, I love to get a hot stone massage and I find it very relaxing, but my wife says that she would rather have a root canal without anesthesia. Encouraging her to get a massage in the interest of self-care would be counterproductive, expensive, and wrong-headed. Self-care for her might be listening to music or reading. The point is: Don’t “should” on yourself or others regarding self-care. Take time to figure out what works for you and participate in it as needed during the holidays (and the rest of the year too). The blind pursuit of self-care because you feel that you “should” do it is an extra stress that nobody needs. Also note that self-care doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, nor expensive. Self-care might be as simple as taking a bath, taking a walk around the block, taking a few minutes after work just to be alone and decompress, reading a chapter of a good book before you go to sleep, buying a new tea to try, or putting a funny sticker near your laptop where you can see it and be amused on a regular basis.
Tip 3: Create a mindful budget
One of the biggest holiday stressors is the financial pressure of gift-giving, travel, food, and entertainment. Often people are left with credit card debt in the New Year. While it’s much easier said than done, it’s best to keep within a realistic budget while still buying and doing some things we love. That’s where the first tip—defining what is meaningful to you—comes in. Once you have determined what celebrations and activities are most meaningful to you, you can better define where best to spend your money. There are no straightforward answers regarding budgeting for the holidays, but it is something to consider in advance, so that you can be more mindful of your spending and hopefully minimize or avoid an unpleasant credit card bill in the New Year.
Tip 4: Gather thoughts and ideas from the family
If you have children, invite them to take part in the planning of holiday celebrations as much as developmentally appropriate. Of course, clarify that the final decision is a family decision, and that it is not possible to implement ALL suggestions, but ask children what they want and allow them to help make as many choices as workable. Do they have a favorite dish that could be added to the holiday meal that would make them feel special and included? Can they help with decorations or cookie-baking (if those are the kinds of things they like to do)?
Tip 5: Look at the big picture
Snafus will always happen—casseroles might get burned, turkeys might be dropped, eggnog might be spilled, cats might break decorations, dogs might eat pies, Uncle Ned might fall asleep at the dinner table—and that’s life. Perspective is important—it’s often the mistakes and gaffes in life that are remembered fondly and laughed about years later. Perfectionism will rob us of joy, every single time. Trust me on this: I deeply wish that I could go back and spend holidays with my parents, who are now dead, and, if that were possible, I would definitely spend more time enjoying the moment and less time making sure the linen napkins were folded correctly.
Tip 6: Set boundaries for conversations at your gathering
Whether it’s a whiny cousin, an annoying coworker, or a family member who vehemently disagrees with whatever your political and/or religious ideology is, the holidays can put us on track for disagreements and disgruntlements, because we are often interacting with groups of people — not all of whom are going to be on our wavelength. Having a no-politics and/or a no-religion rule at gatherings will probably help avoid some angst. When a disagreement or other upsetting situation arises, it’s usually best to remain polite but assertive when necessary, then change the subject as soon as possible. For example: “I hear what you’re saying, Jane, and it sounds like you’re upset about _______. We’ve agreed to not talk about politics though, so let’s talk about something else. Did you enjoy your trip to Myrtle Beach? Tell me all about it.”
And last, but certainly not least, please reach out for support if you need it. The holidays are a wonderful time, but this is also a time fraught with expectations, hopes, stress, and regrets. Talk to a trusted spouse, friend, and/or therapist if needed.