How to Beat Holiday Stress


After years of excitement and drama, exhaustion and post-holiday let-downs, my fondest memory of a Thanksgiving Day was in 1998. Zazu, the cat, and I spent the day on the sofa, reading a great novel. We ate a key lime pie and drank Diet Dr. Peppers. The only compromise was that Zazu wanted water and more room on the sofa. It was a terrific day.

There are so many who approach the holiday season with worries: grief or loss of loved family members, unrealistic expectations of having the perfect holiday, financial and time pressures, social obligations, or isolation and loneliness. Sometimes we just don’t want to be happy in what’s supposed to be a happy season. Then again, some carry the worrisome expectations that this year will be different from the last: that we will have no conflict, that one dinner will impress the in-laws, or that having the family together will negate years of neglect, stress, and disappointments.

How can we escape the holiday highs and lows? Other than hiding away with a book and a key lime pie, how can we avoid the emotional roller coaster when coping with the stresses and tensions presented during the holidays?

I love my family. Every time I come home from college, my folks increase the pressure about one thing or another. It’s insane: once one area is covered, they hit on the next. I’d like to avoid the entire holiday season by going on a cruise but I’m afraid the guilt would be too much. What can I do?

If you can, go home for one, not both, holidays. You choose. Before going, take some time to think about your own expectations. Realizing that your folks won’t change, ask yourself what they really want to find out. Are they worried you’ll flunk out of school, remain a spinster, or that they’ll have to support you? What are their expectations of your life? Do they think you won’t reach them? Can you share the answers to these questions with them and put them
at ease?

You could decide before going home how far you’re willing to go with their pressure. When that point is reached, plan for your own time out—go for a walk, get fresh air, calm down, and change the subject.

As long as you have a plan taking into account reasonable expectations of what you will encounter and walk away with, you’ll be able to survive even the most loving family.

Our holidays are wonderful—for everyone else but me. I work so hard to get everything done: cook, go to work, decorate, be sure the kids have the presents they want, make sure his mother is included. At the end I’m exhausted, frantic, over budget, and emotionally spent. Is it supposed to be like this?

No! But each year you choose to do this you set the stage for further expectations from your family. Try to share the wealth—give everyone a responsibility. They may not do it the same way you have, but you’ll have to give up control of the outcome. Include everyone and you may have just developed a new
family memory!

I’ve lost so many family members in the last five years. The holidays to me are a reminder of who isn’t here, not who is. How do I start to move on without allowing their memory to be forgotten?

Don’t go through the holidays thinking you should not be grieving. After a period of time has passed allow yourself some quiet time during the day to remember with love those who have passed. Then rejoin the spirit of the day and look to find a comfortable emotion other than grief where you can live in the present. Do something to create a different, positive holiday memory if you have to reclaim the holiday from a previous horrible or sad event.

It may be time to talk to a counselor, therapist, or pastor. Self understanding is the beginning to change your perspective. If you understand your grief or stress, then the power and its impact on your life seems to become less.

Is there enough time to get ready? I start shopping for bargains during the year, cooking and freezing in early November, and by New Year’s I’m a grump. Help!

When you try to meet unreal expectations then you’re going to get stressed. Someone might come up with a new idea that would be fun to try, but as the planner, you’re only going to see another burden.

Simplify your whole experience this year: look at your expectations and ask if they’re reasonable. If you have fifteen things to do on your list and the majority of them aren’t being done well, cut that to only two or three that you’ll do quite well.

Are the fifteen things your expectations or from your mother and grandmother? Changing family rituals is not being disloyal—you might take an aspect of that previous ritual and incorporate your own family’s new holiday tradition. Be sure you discuss any changes with your relatives first—reduce stress, increase communication, find a compromise if necessary, and do it all before the event.

There’s always so much going on during the holiday season. I don’t want my kids stressed any more than necessary. What can I do to help them?

Slow down your own schedule and reconnect with your kids during the school vacation. When things get hectic, schedule some time for them of uninterrupted play. Let them participate—or find new ways they can participate and help prepare for the holiday. They might be interested in thinking of a special gift and you could help them make things to celebrate the holiday. Most importantly, keep relationships in mind, not just getting the job done.

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