The stresses surrounding the holidays take many forms. Whether it’s a two-hour test of endurance spent pinned between a Jell-O mold and the opinionated relative who made it, or the impossible task of meeting expectations within a budget that just won’t stretch far enough, the holidays are taxing.
The staff at Vashon Youth & Family Services have more than a century of combined experience helping kids, families and individuals pursue emotional health and resilience. Here are a few suggestions from our staff on how best to care for yourself and those around you:
Though the holidays are often depicted with feel-good stories about people coming together and sharing only joy, they’re more complex in practice — and all too often perfection is an unreachable standard. Social media does a wonderful job connecting people across distances, but it’s important to remember that it’s not always a fair representation of reality. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others, but we shouldn’t. To avoid fictionalized versions of holiday perfection, consider limiting screen time and television exposure.
Many festivities include an abundance of food, drink and other substances. Be mindful of your intake and eat healthy, regular meals.
While it may be tempting to find solace in drink or drugs, they may only help you escape in the moment, but they will not help in the long term.
“Substances increase stress,” says Diane Cook, counselor and substance use disorder specialist, “while not actually solving problems.”
If you feel like talking to someone about drugs or alcohol, don’t be afraid to reach out. If you do feel anxiety building up, Counselor Adam Stone suggests being anxious on purpose.
“Go somewhere private, shake your whole body and say silently and repeatedly to yourself: ‘I’m so anxious … I’m so anxious.’ Something about being anxious intentionally brings the anxiety under our control,” said Stone, who specializes in children and families.
He also suggests breathing exercises for relaxation — since we can’t be relaxed and anxious at the same time, slow breathing puts us into a relaxed state.
“Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and then exhale for eight seconds, while relaxing your muscles on the exhales,” he said.
This exercise can be modified to five-five-five for children.
“In terms of helping children have fun and less stress during the holidays,” said Parent Educator Christine Wood, “what kids need most is connection with their caregivers.”
So consider keeping it simple this holiday season and focusing on activities that connect, such as reading together, playing board games or cooking healthy meals.
If you find yourself bouncing off the walls, take a walk in the woods. Research has shown walking in the woods diminishes stress, decreases blood pressure and leads to better sleep at night. And if you’re an introvert, make sure to plan for enough alone time to recharge. If you’re an extrovert, participating in the daily cookies and coffee hour at 3 p.m. at Vashon Community Care might be for you.
To stay strong over the holidays, counselor Kim Newall, suggests connecting with friends and getting your body moving to boost energy;
“Give to others if you feel like you need to be given to,” she said. “It’s empowering and heart opening.”
The holidays are also a great time to reach out to anyone who could use community.
“Many of our island neighbors simply cannot visit their families abroad at this time,” said Mariela Franco, VYFS human resources and Hispanic/Latino outreach manager. “If you’re far away from family, gather a few people together to create and share what you’re each missing.”
As the holiday season kicks into full swing, remember who you are.
“Make sure,” said Counselor Jamie Fredeen, “to spend time with friends and family that know and value you.”
Traditionally, the end of the year is a time for renewal and everyone has their own way of working through the process, whether that means a large gathering or a quiet night alone.
“It is OK to feel what you feel,” said Counselor Greg Thompson.
When it comes to the opinionated relative at the dinner table, don’t burden yourself by trying to change the perspective of someone who will not be persuaded. We don’t get to choose our family, but we do get to decide how long we stay for dinner. If you can’t shift the discussion away from personal feelings, it’s always okay to ask for some of that Jell-O mold to go.
From all of us at Vashon Youth and Family Services, we wish you the warmest, brightest holidays and a wonderful new year. This island is a unique place, defined by the creativity and compassion of all its residents. There are a number of on-island agencies available to help with any needs you or your family may experience over the holidays. You may find our services and a list of island resources at vyfs.org.
— Carol Goertzel is the executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services.