Holiday stress can be managed with a plan


Most of us have mixed emotions related to the holidays. We tend to like the music, trees, decorations, lights and having fun with our friends. We don’t tend to like the hassle of crowds in the stores, financial pressures related to gift buying and obligations related to needing to see everybody and go everywhere. Some people totally love the holidays. But many people dread them.

When I started out in social services, I worked on a yule connection helpline in Chicago. Think about that for a moment: This support line was set up just to help people deal with the stress of the expectations around this time of year. Yes, the holiday season brings on its own set of stressors that are separate from but certainly add to the stress in our regular daily lives.

Holiday stress relates to the expectations we feel about celebrating and participating in the “joy” of the end of the year events. There are financial stressors: We tend to feel we need to spend money beyond our means and buy gifts for everybody. The stressors can include feeling like you can’t control your own time. There is the expectation that we have to spend time with our entire family and our coworkers and neighbors and church community, etc. That is difficult, if not impossible, for most of us. And of course we tend to eat a lot during the holidays, and many activities involve celebrating with alcohol. All of these things add up to extra stress and anxiety, particularly for people suffering with addictions or in recovery.

The messages we receive during the holiday season seem to say that everybody needs to be happy all the time; you must be social all the time, and you absolutely have to be having fun. That is impossible, and the expectation itself is hard on anyone living in grief or facing depression and anxiety. So, what to do?

The first thing we need to do — and this is no easy task — is to change the messages we give ourselves about the holiday season. Throw away the messages about mandatory happiness, excessive drinking and binge eating. Substitute a message that is about you and your family, that revolves around doing the things that feel real and manageable. It’s not easy to feel okay when you change your expectations like that, so don’t be surprised if this step takes work. One approach is to look at one activity or expectation at a time. Try to figure out which holiday activities are the hardest for you and reduce the time you spend on those in particular. Maybe you need an alternative plan for each activity that is the most challenging. For example, if being around excessive eating and drinking is hard (for whatever reason), try to plan an alternative activity like skiing or attending a self-help support group.

When you set about to change your own expectations, you’ll be changing them for those around you (who may or may not be ready for that). For that reason, you will need a solid support system, with people who understand your concerns and can help plan strategies or alternatives and support your choices. Don’t be afraid to allow yourself alone time, but try not to isolate. You do not have to go to every event, and you do not have to be totally happy at every point during this challenging time period. What really matters is that you give yourself permission to be real with yourself, and try to engage in the activities you really enjoy.

If we work to reduce the pressures we feel during this season, and to heighten our sensitivity to others needs, then the holidays can offer times of true enjoyment.

— Rita Szantay is the clinical supervisor of Vashon Youth & Family Services’ Outpatient Addiction Recovery Services (OARS) program.

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