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The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful. Don't let the pressure get you unraveled. Here are tips to help you navigate four common holiday scenarios.
1. You're overwhelmed by obligations.
If buying and wrapping gifts, attending holiday parties and making meals for extended family leaves you stressed, join the club.
Money worries, work and family obligations already have the average American rating her stress level a 4.9 on a 10-point scale, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. Throw in six jam-packed weeks of preparing for the holidays, and that stress level soars to frazzled.
The solution: Set goals and stick to them. “The goal isn't to have five-dozen cookies or to mail two-dozen cards. Those are methodologies,” said Linda D. Henman, Ph.D, president of the Henman Performance Group.
The goal is to enjoy the holidays. Do that by defining clear goals, and then prioritize them in order of the three most important to you, said Henman. Number one may be devoting more time to buying and wrapping presents, or baking your kids’ favorite cookies. The idea is to focus on what really matters to you, and stop spending energy in other areas.
“Nothing will be perfect, but everyone can have a successful holiday season by deciding on the top three things that most of the stakeholders consider important.”
2. The holiday blues are setting in.
You don’t have to be a Grinch to experience a little sadness over the holidays. For some, a mailbox empty of party invites brings the blues.
The reason? “Many of us tend to place too much meaning on the holidays, which adds extra pressure and can set us up to feel disappointment, anxiety or sadness,” said Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., and senior editor of Psychalive.
The solution: Take a step back to care for yourself. “We often think the holidays are supposed to be all about family time, but spending time with family doesn’t always make everyone happy,” said Firestone. “In fact, time spent with our families can reactivate old dynamics and stir up old emotional reactions.”
Holidays are especially rough on those who are missing loved ones.
“These feelings are often intensified by our critical inner voices, which may mock us for being alone at this time of year when it seems like everyone else is with their loved ones,” said Firestone.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a step back and make yourself the priority. Tune into yourself, said Firestone.
“Pay attention to how you feel, as you make different choices and attend different holiday events. Don’t succumb to too many obligations if they make you feel stressed. Throw out convention and find the holiday activities that work for you and make you happy.”
3. The celebration isn't going perfectly.
Chances are your holidays do not resemble those of a Hallmark television commercial or twelve-page spread in the December issue of Real Simple. Guess what? That’s normal.
“Most of us look forward to the holidays with anticipation, excitement and expectations for a happy family time,” said Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
“Often, fantasies, hopes and wishes for a magically perfect time are met with disappointment when the children misbehave, judgmental guests invade your home, adult siblings fight and you worry about whether the family and guests will like your cooking.”
The solution: Be flexible — and realistic. “We’re deluged with images of ‘happy couples’ and ‘happy families,’ grinning widely as they pirouette while holding pans of heavy turkey, or dancing through holiday shopping,” said Julia B. Colwell, Ph.D., author of “The Relationship Skills Workbook.”
“While most of us have our moments of glee, thinking we should be able to kick up our heels in excitement sets us up for disappointment.”
You also need to be open to revising the plan, said Walfish. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Ask yourself: What difference will this make one year from now?”
Focus less on rigid rituals like getting to the Lego store before nine to get your hands on the latest trendy toy, and instead, embrace family togetherness.
“Contrary to popular belief, what kids love most about Christmas and Hanukkah is not the gifts, it is the bonding and coming together of family,” said Walfish.
“The adults who come to my office do not remember what they ‘got’ as a child for the holidays. But they do remember family dinners, parties and unity.”
4. You and your partner are bickering.
Whether you’re ticked at your in-laws for showering the kids with too many gifts, or you’re irritated that your spouse’s football game has trumped decorating the tree, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas become a tidal wave of anger and resentment for many couples.
“Often the holidays mean we’re giving up what we really want in order to please someone else,” said Colwell. We’re trying to be the perfect partner, the perfect parent and the perfect friend.
“While we can typically override what we want for a little while, eventually this leads to resentment, which leads to the blow-up. Or at least an emotional shut-down and distancing,” said Colwell.
The solution: Honor your feelings and practice good communication.
“If you’re sad, let yourself feel sad. Allow anger and fear to be present in your body, and to move through naturally. With loving attention, most feelings move through our body in two to five minutes.”
Smart couples practice effective communication throughout the year, but too often those strategies fall by the wayside during periods of high stress, like the holidays. Yet, that’s when we need stellar communication the most.
“Make saying what you want, or don’t want, an ongoing part of your conversations with your partner,” said Colwell. “The gold standard: Getting creative and finding ways for you both to get everything you want.”
Of course, no one would suggest you put your head in the sand when things don’t go your way, but taking a step back to let tensions cool, and focusing on your equilibrium is a good way to both diffuse and ward off contentious situations.
Finally, “take care of your relationship by scheduling time to check in with each other,” said Colwell.
“Physical contact is especially soothing, be it having sex or even just holding hands.”