It’s hard to believe that the holidays are just around the corner, and stores are filling up with decorations, beckoning you to buy. According to marketers, the holiday season is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year. However for many, the holidays may trigger deep feelings of isolation and sadness.
And then the stress of it all can get to you. I have a theory about holiday stress in December – high levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) may be the culprit in turning eighty percent of Americans into the very fruitcakes we dread buying for our families.
“With so much emphasis on family and celebration, it’s hard if you’re dealing with difficult memories or reminders that you’re not close to your family,” says Sharon Melnick, author of Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident & Productive When the Pressure’s On. “It can feel like there’s a big gap between what other people are experiencing and what you’re experiencing.”
Add in the financial pressure of gift-giving, cold weather and a lack of sunshine, and you’ve got prime conditions for a world-class funk. But unlike Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is estimated to affect up to twenty percent of Americans, it’s unknown exactly how many people suffer from the holiday blahs. With so many ways to feel down during the holiday hustle, I’ve come up with some tips, tricks and topics to keep your stress down so your typical cheery demeanor doesn’t stale and harden like a holiday fruitcake.
- ALLOW CRACKS Consciously or unconsciously, we create memories of holidays from the past – the good, the bad and the ugly. So when your current life circumstances become challenging (you’re going through a break-up, switching jobs, a fight with a loved one, a death in the family), your mood may be clouded with memories. A crack in your life does not mean it’s all over. Famed singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen writes, “There is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.”
- GIVE AWAY THE SANTA HAT Do you feel the pressure to feel merry, buying lots of gifts for every family member, extended family members, friends, acquaintances, and Starbucks baristas? Well, stop! You do not need to max out your credit cards to keep up with the barrage of door buster sales, gift ideas and packages. So donate your Santa Hat to Goodwill and find other ways to give.
- JOURNAL Holidays are often a time for reflection. All too often thoughts may turn to family members, even pets or persons, you may have lost. Memories can trigger sadness and make one feel even more alone. Dr. James Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, concludes that writing about painful feelings and emotions helps relieve stress and helps make way for the healing process. So keep a journal and write to feel “right”.
- SIMPLIFY Cut your to-do list in half. In December??? Yep. Keep on asking yourself this question: Will I die tomorrow if this thing doesn’t get done?
- LONELINESS The holidays can feel lonely if you sense the pressure of not having a significant other. Additionally, separation from family members due to overseas deployment or splitting time between parents’ homes (emotional or geographic) can be painful at this time of year. Anne Launders writes, “expect trouble as an inevitable part of life… so when it comes, tell yourself ‘I am bigger than you. You will not defeat me.’”
- FINANCIAL HARDSHIP If gift giving is the goal of the holidays and money is an issue, it’s no wonder many people feel like they don’t measure up. This holiday season, narrow your focus on what the holidays mean to you.
- SUNLIGHT Many folks are adversely impacted by the relative loss of sunlight in the day during the winter months. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can heighten the holiday blues and color your typical bright world with streaks of grey. But don’t let the grey get you down – remind yourself that seasons change, and the sun will return to brighten your day.
- TAKE A BREAK FROM FACEBOOK I know you’re thinking it would be easier to give up breathing oxygen, but a break from the one place in the world where only the happiest and most successful moments are shared will do you some good. Or at the very least: limit your time. According to Sharon Melnick, “[It’s impossible] to compare yourself to others’ highlight reels of themselves.” So before you tumble down a mountain of despair because your best friend is posting pictures of their skiing trip in the Alps, shut down the digital world and take a breath of fresh air in the real world.
- MAKE TIME FOR EXERCISE All too often we think the holidays are an excuse to take a break from exercise. On the contrary – it may be the single most important endorphin booster to avoid the blues. Find a work out buddy now so when the holidays are in full swing, you’ll have someone there to motivate you, or even just to take a walk. Take multiple walks – frequency is more impactful on your mood than duration. In the twelve-step program, there’s an old saying, “suit up and show up.”
- REFRAME YOUR THINKING If you know the holidays get you down, start with planning ahead. Think about life’s simple pleasures that bring you joy. Maybe it’s binge-watching a favorite TV series, playing cards with your uncle, or relaxing in a bubble bath. Sprinkle these fun activities throughout your holidays to give your mind and spirit a boost of positive feeling.
- SEEK SOCIAL SUPPORT Even though it’s your instinct to make like a bear and hole up in your home, staying at home can feed your feelings of isolation and depression. The key is to surround yourself with friends and loved ones even if you don’t feel like it. If you are in recovery, step up your meetings. Getting out can bring you unexpected opportunities for connection and pleasure.
- BE OF SERVICE Nothing makes one feel better than being of service to someone else. Sign up at the homeless shelter to dish out dinner, wrap presents for less fortunate kids, or spend time with an elderly relative or neighbor. Attend community events. Discover volunteer opportunities. The way to bring abundance into your life is to give first. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself for not getting invited to this party or not going to that show, try doing something you have never done in your local community or city at large. As an Angeleno, my city offers an abundance of activities. To keep up with them, I made a to-do list of all the things I want to see and do in my city. When the holidays arrive, look to your to-do list of great ways to get out and contribute to the community.
- CREATE YOUR OWN TRADITIONS Contrary to popular opinion, there are no rules for how you spend the holidays. So if old traditions bring up unhappy memories, start new ones. If you don’t have family, share the holidays with good friends. Don’t wait for them to include you; make them welcome in your home instead. If cooking a Christmas dinner feels like a drag, do brunch instead. If going to a synagogue or church service dampens your spirits, have your own worship service how you wish.
- STAY BUSY & AVOID UNSTRUCTURED TIME Clean those closets, rearrange the furniture, catch an extra meeting. There is a self help group for just about anything. Yogi Berra once said, “If you hit a fork in the road, take it.” Which means it doesn’t matter which way you are going so long as you keep moving.
- STAY WITHIN A BUDGET During the holidays, it is easy to spend, spend and spend. This year, make a list of people you want to remember and think outside the box. Anyone can overspend on a lavish gift, but the truth is that a hand-made gift or a hand-written note creates a lasting memory. Even if you can’t cook and you’re invited to dinner, Tollhouse pre-baked cookies (tell them you made them from scratch) on a festive red paper plate can be the sweetest treat!
- BE GENTLE WITH YOUR SOUL Do little sweet things for yourself. And protect yourself from the over-critical friend or relative.
- MODERATION Fight the urge to over-indulge. Not only will you feel the benefits in the thick of the holidays, but when the season passes and you return to a normal routine in January, you’ll feel good about yourself while the rest of the world hits the gym to burn of that stale fruitcake they swore they wouldn’t touch.
- DON’T CONFUSE TEMPORARY FOR PERMANENT Seasons come and go just as life moments blow with the wind. Blues in the holiday season don’t mean circumstances won’t change in the coming months. Embrace change!
- DANCE IN THE RAIN My mom once told me, “You can’t wait for the storm to be over. You have to learn how to dance in the rain.”
- WRITE A BUCKET FULL OF GRATITUDE Wake up each morning – even if you’re grumpy as Scrooge – and write down five things you are grateful for. Then say them out loud. Speak your grateful heart into existence.
Louise Stanger is a lecturer, professor, clinician, trainer, and international interventionist. She has performed hundreds of family interventions throughout the United States. Check out her book – Falling Up: A Memoir of Renewal – for even more tips on strength, grace, and resiliency during difficult times.
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