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  • Dr. Eric Carlsen

Five Ways to Remain Calm This Holiday Season

woman holding Christmas packages and screaming due to stress

As the holidays approach and many of us look forward to celebrating with our families and loved ones, there can also be heightened stress and anxiety associated with the festivities. For instance, oftentimes we visit family or friends who we may otherwise not see regularly, and old tensions or unresolved conflicts can be brought to the surface. The added political divisiveness in the culture right now, the potential rise in expenses incurred (travel, gifts), and/or the oftentimes heightened expectations for perfection during this time of year, can lead to individuals being under undue pressure during this season. For those who have suffered losses or are mourning loved ones, the holiday season can also pose specific challenges as we grapple with how to move forward in the wake of such absences.

Perhaps it is important to take time to reflect on what your intentions are for the upcoming holiday season and to think about how you can minimize anxiety or pressure associated with the festivities, and better tap into the true spirit associated with these events. Here is a list of five ways to maintain your calm this holiday season, and make the most of your time, whether with family, friends, a combination of the two, or even by yourself:

Take time for yourself. There is often an added busyness to the holiday season, where you may feel increasing pressure to say yes to every invitation and person. Particularly those of us traveling to visit family or friends, we may feel obligated to do as much as possible during our trips. The American Psychological Association, in recognizing the potential for added stress during the holidays, specifically advises that individuals take time for themselves during this time of year (“Making the most of the holiday season,” 2017). That means taking time for self-care even if you find yourself in the position of visiting others or traveling for the holidays. Whatever your stress reliever is during your regular routine—be it yoga or working out or journaling—make sure that you find the time and space to maintain those habits during the holidays. The holidays raise expectations of spending our time with others, which is, of course, important, but in order to be able to best be there for our loved ones, we need to remember to take care of ourselves.

Maintain gratitude for what is. Much of the pressure we may feel during the holidays is associated with wanting to control what happens or how things play out. Instead of imagining how things could be better, try to just accept things for how they are. To take it even a step further, try to identify specific things in your life right now that you are grateful for. Mindful magazine, for instance, identifies that “gratitude goes a long way when it comes to overall wellness” (Wolkin, 2016, para 15). So rather than dwelling on what isn’t working, try to focus on what is. Simply re-framing one’s thinking about things and taking on a perspective from a place of gratitude can be very empowering.

Let go of notions of perfection. As an extension of gratitude, surrender your notions of perfection. Try to maintain a realistic notion of what can and cannot be accomplished during this time of year. The gifts don’t have to be perfect; the meals don’t have to be perfect—the point is to just get loved ones in the same room and to celebrate. And guess what, those relationships won't be perfect either! So, embrace the chaos, surrender that voice in your head that is insisting you do more or be better, and recognize that slip-ups are an inevitable part of any day. Don’t get caught up in the trap of perfection, recognize that things will likely not abide by all of the notions you have in your head, and try to accept whatever happens as an opportunity for growth and learning.

Practice kindness. That relative with a different political view than yours, that neighbor who just won’t stop talking about things you find boring, the incessant noise from the television that the kids just won’t lower—practice being patient with the parts of other people that frustrate you, and as an extension of that patience, remind yourself to be kind. Most people likely have their own anxieties and stress going into the holiday season, so if you try to approach each person you encounter with greater kindness, perhaps everyone will relax more and enjoy the moment. Instead of adding to the stress during holiday travel, for instance, try to find ways to show kindness towards other travelers who are similarly stressed as they try to make it to their destinations. Kindness is a practice because sometimes it can take effort, but over time it can become our default habit. Moreover, self-kindness is also important—be gentler not only with others but with yourself during this time of year as well.

No shame in opting out. If the idea of spending time at a relative’s house or attending another holiday party triggers a disproportionate amount of stress for you, consider opting out this year. The holidays should be about celebration, and if you can’t muster enthusiasm or interest in certain events, then there is no shame in saying no. Identify your own boundaries and recognize what obligations you are capable of fulfilling and which ones just don’t work for you. Don’t feel bullied or pressured into meeting another person’s expectations if they conflict with your needs or the needs of your loved ones.

If you feel overwhelmed financially or unable to afford to buy elaborate gifts this holiday season, for instance, there is no shame in deciding to show your affection or celebrate the holidays in a way that doesn’t require buying to excess. Find what works for you, share that with your loved ones, and enjoy the holidays on your own terms.

The takeaway is that there shouldn’t be a holiday script that all of us have to follow if it is just triggering stress or undue pressure on us. Do what feels right for you and your loved ones and find a way to tap into the spirit of the holiday season without all of the stress and noise associated with it.

Credit: Azadeh Aalai Ph.D.

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