People may joke about “staying sane” during the holidays, but the saying holds. Each winter, navigating holiday stress is difficult for many people. Depending on one’s life experiences, the holidays can elicit complicated emotions. It might be tempting to self-medicate during the holidays, but there are ways to ensure you receive effective, soothing support. Here are three stress tips from our therapists to help you manage the holidays.
Stress Tip #1 – Remember that movies can create unrealistic expectations
Movies and advertisements often present the “pure joy” of the holidays, causing many people to feel isolated in their stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Spending a Christmas in New York while falling in love sounds great. So does staying in a cabin with friends or family, surrounded by giant snowflakes and cheery snowmen.
While many people do experience joy during the holidays, it is more common that people share the realities of holiday stress, too. Some of these stressors might relate to the logistical stress of hosting one’s family, feeding large groups of people with various tastes and needs, and putting aside your own needs to help with the chaos. Conversely, the lack of any logistical stress if there are “no holiday plans” may induce feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, or boredom.
Additional emotional stressors during the holidays may include feeling depressed when you “should” feel happy—the “should” referring to what the movies signal society to feel. Or perhaps you dread the yearly holiday meal when you share proximity with an estranged, or even abusive, relative.
These emotional stressors may feel isolating, but the reality is that most people navigate one–if not several–emotional stressors during the winter holidays. Remember, life is not like how the movies portray it, especially during the holidays.
Stress Tip #2 – Identify your big triggers and develop a “game plan”
Self-inquiry is a valuable process that can help people regulate themselves during potentially stressful situations. By knowing your triggers, you will be more likely to take a step back from the direct comment or action that triggered you, and take care of yourself rather than spiral or burst into anger.
For many people, for example, navigating the holidays as someone with a previous or ongoing eating disorder is difficult. If someone comments during dinner about any perceived weight gain or weight loss of someone else at the table, what do you do?
By identifying this potential trigger in advance, you can create a game plan for when it happens. So when Aunt Sally says, “Wow [name] are you going to eat all that turkey?” right as you are about to enjoy dinner, you can remind yourself, “Aunt Sally is not aware of the harm of her statements.” If you have a partner or close relative at this event, and you feel comfortable telling them about a triggering relative or conversation that might come up, try creating a game plan, or create a code word or gesture for when you feel like you need physical comfort or reassurance.
It may seem silly, but having a go-to internal script or plan during an unavoidable stressor, such as talking with “Aunt Sally” at Thanksgiving, can go a long way. Conversely, you can try to avoid sitting near a triggering relative during the entire evening, but that may be less in your control. Lastly, reflect on if you are are able to communicate with your relatives about your triggers and concerns before the event. This last option requires your relatives to have the communicative tools or self-inquiry to hear you, reflect on their actions, and change their behaviors.
Stress Tip #3 – You Have Permission to “Opt Out” of Major Stressors
Sometimes, you need to remember: you do not have to go to stressful, triggering events if you do not want to. If you have tried to set limits and boundaries with certain family members or friends, and they continue to not hear your needs, maybe you need a break this holiday.
This is a major decision that can initially feel isolating. But it may be the best option if a “required” event during the holidays could harm your mental health.
If each year, for example, an after-hours Office Holiday Party always results in giving you an anxiety attack, maybe this is the year you do not go. Make up an excuse. Come down with a “cold” the day before. These options do exist. Your mental health matters.
A therapist can help you explore all your options and create a plan that makes you feel seen, respected, and emotionally stronger.
Have a Question? Schedule a Visit with an NAMHS Therapist
There are big questions and potential solutions to complicated holiday dynamics and stressors. If you have a question or would like more information, contact NAMHS or request an appointment. NAMHS has in-person therapists available in Redding, Eureka, Fairfield, Woodland and Monterey. We also have online therapy appointments.
Our therapists are here to support you and provide short-term and long-term relief.