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Help For Holiday Stress:

by Cynthia Lindner, MS
(631) 473-0405

What Are The Sources Of Holiday Stress?

We tend to share an idealized image of how the holidays should be. We have visions of families and friends gathered together at celebrations, peacefully sharing meals, happily giving gifts, and thoughtfully reflecting on the blessings of life. We hold images of blazing fireplaces warming a room of sights, sounds, and scents that we connect to the holiday season.

This idealized version of the holidays is usually far from the reality of the holidays that we often experience. It is not at all uncommon to encounter rude and desperate people in the stores, drive in very heavy traffic, have thoughts of dreading visiting certain relatives, and deal with bouts of overeating or too much drinking. Some of us experience pressure to overspend our budget which can result in financial concerns lasting into summer, have episodes of crying, and notice an increase in arguments. The stressors of the holidays can magnify the underlying tensions that we seem to manage more successfully during the rest of the year.

Too Many Things To Do

There are many responsibilities to friends, to work, to home life, and to the extended family. This means thinking about the needs of people, making lists, driving in traffic, standing in lines, dealing with crowds of impatient and often irritated people. We may be attending or even planning parties and family get-togethers, and although these may be something to look forward to, it can also be very tiring. It is a challenge to take on extra responsibilities, and still maintain your normal daily routines. During the holiday season we often find ourselves lacking sleep, getting tense and letting go of our normal ways of maintaining our emotional and physical well-being.

Reminders Of A Painful Past

For many of us the holidays bring to mind a recollection of good times with family and friends. However, this is not the case for people who do not feel close to their families. We are often expected to spend time with family members who we may avoid most of the year because of unresolved conflicts. These types of situations can bring about uncomfortable feelings of hurt, anger and perhaps guilt. What about people who have lost members of their family? The holidays can dredge up bittersweet memories of past times with loved ones who are no longer with us. And, let's not forget that many people in our society today lack a social system of supportive friends. The holidays may make us painfully aware that we are not able to achieve the social expectations that the holidays have come to represent.

Change The Way You Think And Feel About The Holidays

Why should such a special time of year cause this much upset for so many people? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in the inconsistency between what we want for the holidays and what we can realistically have. We truly want to live up to the ideal goals symbolized by the holiday season. We want peace, love, abundance, sharing, security, and happiness, and we want all of these things in the way they are portrayed in the media. The media's portrayal of how we are supposed to celebrate the holidays, is unrealistic for most of us. In building these unrealistic expectations we are setting ourselves up for great disappointments and increased amounts of unhealthy stress. If we try too hard to fit into an inappropriate mold, we may end up paying a terrible personal price.

With some deep and honest reflection about what the holidays really mean to you, as well as a realistic assessment of the things you tend to do this time of year, (a skilled therapist is helpful with this) your experience of the holidays can be transformed into one that is truly peaceful and full of joy.

Symptoms Of Holiday Stress

Physically we may notice fatigue, muscular tension, headaches, upset stomach or other digestive disturbances, and a tendency to come down with a variety of ailments. Emotionally we see signs of worry, irritability, wanting to withdraw and be alone, being arguementative, and feelings of depression.

Q & A

Q: The holidays are supposed to be a fun joyful time of year, but with the recent events I don't feel like I can have fun anymore. I'd like to change this, but I don't know how to begin.

A: Yes, it is difficult to celebrate the holidays when we as a nation and individuals have sobering concerns regarding the recent attacks and the changes that have taken place due those events. I have heard people talking of observing the holidays, meaning there is a little less joy for them this year. Each of us must find our own comfort level in this area, if it does not feel appropriate to you to celebrate then scale back until you are able to enjoy yourself again.

Now with keeping that in mind, here is an exercise to help you have some fun and get some pleasure back into your life. You can tap into the pleasure centers of your brain by using your imagination, and this should be done without any chemical aids like alcohol or drugs.

Find a spot with no distractions (turn the ring off on the phone), then close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly ten times. With each breath imagine your body becoming more deeply relaxed. Imagine that every breath in, you are inhaling calmness, and every breath out, you are exhaling tension. After you have taken your ten breaths, and you are breathing normally, imagine yourself in a beautiful peaceful and pleasurable place. This will probably be a place that you have enjoyed before-- what ever comes to mind first is fine. Now focus on this experience, if other thoughts intrude just let them go and get back to the enjoyment of the place you are imagining. Tell yourself that you are feeling pleasure, and having fun. Become aware of the feeling, and then let it grow. When you have spent enough time in your imaginary fun place bring your awareness back to your normal activities knowing that you can visit again just by repeating the exercise.

Self-Help Tips For A Less Stressful Holiday

Monitor your level of tension and watch for the physical and emotional signs of stress. Take regular breaks and nurture yourself during this time. Say "yes" to those activities that you really want to do, and feel free to say "no" to things that you truly do not want to do.
The holidays are seldom perfect for everyone. Allow yourself to have some ups and downs. Remember, it is not unusual to feel a little down or cranky in the face of pressure.
Watch your diet during the holidays. Excess sugar, overeating, and too much alcohol can impair your ability to deal with holiday stressors. Maintain your commitment to self-care. Get enough sleep, exercise, and deep relaxation thoughout the season.
Above all, have some fun during the holidays. Find ways to make this most special of seasons a time of true joy and happiness.
Courtesy of the Port Jefferson Counseling Center, NY

1997-2011 by C. Lindner, all rights reserved.