How to Manage Holiday Stress

As published in The Seattle Times

The holiday season is in full swing, with its usual round of social obligations, gift-giving, cooking and decorating.

Along with all that comes at least a little bit of stress. Whether it’s deciding which side of the family to spend the holidays with or wondering how the kids will handle a long car ride to their grandparents’ house, the list of stressors is unique to each person.

As the holiday season approaches, I encourage my patients to ask themselves if the glass is half full or half empty. How we manage the holidays may have as much to do with our outlook and expectations as our resources. It is important to manage your expectations — to be realistic about what is possible and honest about what you want.

Picture this: Your neighbors are throwing a holiday party, and they’ve asked you to make all of the appetizers. But you have gifts to wrap and want to spend time with your family baking. While you feel extremely overwhelmed and would rather spend time relaxing at home with your family, you feel a sense of obligation to please others.

In situations like these, I advise my patients to take a step back and remember that they’re not superman or superwoman. Don’t let “supposed to do” take the place of what you would like to do or what brings you enjoyment. To alleviate pressure, try to keep your life simple by not over committing and by discussing potential obligations with family members or friends before making decisions. This will help ensure that you still have time to spend the holidays how you want.

It also helps to anticipate likely problems and delays. This goes back to managing expectations. Prepare for the unexpected and know that some problems and delays are possible, if not likely, such as traffic, burning the cookies or forgetting a present for a family member and having to buy it at the last minute. Most important, don’t blame yourself for everything that goes wrong.

Another way to minimize stress during the holiday season is to be aware of the people around you. When family and friends gather for the holidays there is always the chance for things to go awry. Instead of trying to change or control others, recognize that the people in your life will celebrate the holidays as they want to and not the way you want them to.

The holidays can also be a time of year that brings up unpleasant memories such as sad events, or anniversaries. For some who have experienced abuse, holiday activities or even smells and tastes can trigger unpleasant memories. It’s important to acknowledge that these memories are present without allowing them to take over your celebration.

If you are dealing with holiday stress, it is important to cope in a healthy way. Don’t use food, drugs or alcohol to manage emotions. Instead, try activities such as meditation, talking things over with a friend or incorporating exercise into your holiday gathering such as a family walk.

Remember that the holidays are short, as is life. Make the most of them. Look for easy, social and comforting ways to celebrate. Get together with family and friends to bake while listening to great music or to help younger children make crafts for their presents while watching an old movie. These activities can reduce stress and can also be easy on your budget.

If you feel sad for more days than you feel good in a two-week period or if dealing with family members seems overwhelming during the holiday season, check in with your primary care provider. You may benefit from an appointment with a behavioral health specialist who can help you manage your increased stress or difficult family situation.

Carolyn Logsdon, Ph.D., LICSW, specializes in behavioral medicine at Pacific Medical Centers’ Northgate clinic. To learn more or make an appointment, visit her web page or call 206-621-4045.

Carolyn D. Logsdon, PhD, LICSW

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