While the coming days hold promise of joy and festivities, there will be periods when the joy feels distant. Even in the best of circumstances, we can find ourselves stressed out during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah celebrations.
Holidays can bring stress — whether you are dealing with too much to do, the artifacts of past holidays-gone-bad, or family changes (i.e. death, divorce, conflict, financial stress). Instead of feeling happy, we find ourselves being short with those we love the most, feeling like a failure, wearing a scowl, or crying over spilt milk.
I am a believer in prevention so naturally find myself considering the steps we can take to head off stress “at the pass” so that we can capture the joy and love of the seasons — without breaking our backs or the bank. Consider the following steps to ease the stress that may come with the seasons:
Develop a budget. Each activity and tradition has a financial cost. You can keep your budget intact by deciding up front how much money you have to spend and then working hard to keep within that line.
There is another kind of budget that should be created for this time of year as well, i.e. a time budget. Anxiety is one of the biggest thieves of joy and many of us feel anxiety when there is more to-do-list than time. Having a sense of the time costs for our favorite activities helps us avoid the trap of forcing 72 hours’ worth of activities into 24 hours of one day.
Identify the traditions that are most important to your family. Even if you think you know what these are, consider asking this question around the dinner table. Talk with your family about the smells, activities, tastes, and places that make the holidays or festivals feel like celebrations. What do they love? What would they like to live without? Ideally, you’ll come away with one or two key items that scream Christmas, Thanksgiving or Hanukkah to your family. This is your list of “favorite things”.
Compare your “favorite things” list against your time and money budgets. Identify the time and money costs of each item and remember to add 25% to whatever you estimate (most of us tend to underestimate costs). What items fit with the actual time and money budgets? What doesn’t? Are there any activities that can be simplified to reduce time or money costs? Are there some items that just can’t be worked in?
For those things that are unobtainable this season, think about their “essence” to determine if you can still capture the joy. For example, if travelling to a favorite lodge is a cherished activity but the financial budget won’t allow it this year, think about the key parts of that lodge experience that make it so special. In this case, you might create the “lodge” experience at home by going for a hike along a nearby favorite trail, coming home to hot chocolate, and playing games around the table.
Hold a family meeting. Share your findings with your family and make plans. Family members may have some objections to changes in tradition, but they may also have some ideas about how to help bring the “dream” to reality. Let them help!
Another source of stress during the holidays centers on family dynamics. Reduce your stress by:
Identifying your triggers. Does your blood boil when Aunt Sue spouts off about her political views? Does Uncle Stan talk endlessly about his latest medical procedure? Are there topics that invariably lead to arguments? Identifying these things matter-of-factly helps you identify triggers for yourselves and others and enables you to be more proactive in heading off danger zones.
For example, if you can’t tolerate Aunt Sue’s political sermons, consider asking for some no-politics zones at the next gathering. If this isn’t an option, be aware of your own boiling points and excuse yourself from the table for a moment when the lectures begin — or consider sitting beside someone else who shares your feelings and might have interest in a side-bar conversation. You might also consider decreasing exposure times to stressful people or situations. Instead of having a 3-hour visit with Aunt Sue, you might consider visiting for half that time and, as radical as it may be, perhaps not at all.
Learn from your emotions. If you tend to feel anger or distress at holidays or gatherings, this is your mind’s way of telling you that something is off-kilter. It is a healthy and good thing to seek help when you receive these red flags from your mind and spirit. Talk with your clergy or find a counselor. The fact is, if we had pain from a broken arm, we would seek help to set that arm so that it can repair. Talking with a counselor is the same as “setting” that emotional piece of yourself so that you can repair and be stronger.
If you don’t have a regular counselor, though, and find yourself stressed with teeth on edge, consider reaching out for support through a little known resource — the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network’s Peer2Peer Warm Line. This line provide Georgians with free confidential peer support by phone 24 hours a day. Simply call 888-945-1414 for support with depression, anxiety, or for help dealing with life’s challenges. Learn more at gmhcn.org/peer2peer-warm-line. If you are feeling anxious to the point of being in crisis or even suicidal, you can also call 800-715-4225 (Georgia’s Crisis and Access Line) for free help.
Focusing on the things that are important to you and your family, knowing your limits, taking care of yourself, and being proactive are keys to creating celebrations and holidays that are more joy filled. Happy Holidays All!