It’s ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ and, for many, the most stressful.
The holiday season is upon us, and the whirlwind of cooking, decorating, gathering, gift-buying and wrapping, journeys home, jingle bells-singing has begun.
Studies have shown that stress ramps up for people of all ages as we count down to the new year.
Experts explain three types of seasonal stress and how to reign in your holiday ambitions or put the freeze on family feuds.
Like any other form, holiday stress comes in different shapes and sizes for different kinds of people.
Dr Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist in California, says that it’s important to remember that the rest of life doesn’t stop when the holidays come around. We have ‘all the same stresses we deal with every day, plus hosting, plus traveling, and, for some being lonely.’
She says there are three groups who find themselves overwhelmed by the season.
1. The perfectionists
For some, the holidays are about getting the perfect gift for everyone on the list, wearing the perfect outfit to every party, and making the perfect meals.
Dr Lombardo says to prepare for your perfectionism with self-care. ‘Address your stress before during and after the holidays. Don’t go into them exhausted, hungry and overwhelmed,’ she advises.
‘Optimize you, with sleep, exercise, and healthy eating.’
Dr Lombardo says that pressure to keep up with extravagant holiday traditions can distract you from the what really makes the holiday season important.
Instead, she says to tell yourself, ‘this holiday, I don’t need perfection, I’m focused on happiness.’
Rather than keeping up with old practices, she suggests making new ones that can help you to ‘focus on what you can do to be happy and enjoy your time, instead of focusing on everything being perfect,’ Dr Lombardo says.
‘Try making new holiday traditions that are simpler and more focused on the family. Decorate cookies, or sing Christmas carols or whatever songs your family likes,’ she says.
Dr Ken Yeager, director of Ohio State University’s Stress Trauma and Resilience (START) program, says the managing expectations is the key to a successful holiday season.
Dr Yeager divides stress into two categories: internal and external.
Perfectionists are victims of their own internal expectations, and when things don’t come out just right, it’s easy to say it’s all ruined.
Instead, he says to keep the holidays in perspective through their past present and future iterations.
‘Remember from holidays past what was important, and how you can pass what was important to you on to the next generation.’
Last Christmas, he asked his children what they love about the holiday, and they said it was all about the fire roaring in the fireplace.
‘That’s what woke them up for the holiday experience, and that’s what they love. A lot of times, it’s not the big things but the little ones that make the holidays,’ he says.
2. The family feud-ers
‘Whether you have that aunt that always gets drunk or a mother that always has some comment on her son-in-law, the key is not to expect your family to be different,’ says Dr Lombardo.
To prepare yourself for the toe-to-toe moments around the table, make a mental list of the topics that you know are ‘hot’ for you. Consider making some of these – like politics – downright off-limits, she suggests.
‘The world seems to be less and less civil and there seems to be more and more political ranting and separations,’ says Dr Yeager.
Turn the conversation away from these differences, and toward something you all share, he advises.
‘Keep the conversation to the reason for the gatherings, what’s really important to all of the individuals,’ he says, ‘then conversation tends to go away from politically divisive or argumentative and toward the supportive.’
There’s a biological reason that holiday-time disagreements can get so heated, Dr Lombado says.
‘Stress is a continuum. We go from zero – which is no stress – to 10, which is like, completely freaking out and overwhelmed,’ she says.
‘Once we get to a seven or higher, we tend to focus on the negative because we go from using the frontal lobe, that allows us to see multiple perspectives, to using the limbic system, or emotional reasoning,’ Dr Lombardo explains.
When we get to that ‘red zone,’ and already have high stress levels, ‘you tend to personalize things, and think things like “she thinks I suck,”‘ Dr Lombardo says.
To avoid the red zone, have your contingency plans in place. ‘Take the dog for a walk, or take a few minutes to respond to a “work email” (even if you’re really just watching a video or talking to a friend),’ she says.
The family can join in for stress-reducing fun too. Take everyone out for a walk, or watch a movie, but make sure some of your together-time isn’t so interaction intensive.
3. The lonely ones
Memories of holidays spent with loved ones can easily make us lonely for those times, especially if we can’t make it to family gatherings, or are missing important people from our lives.
‘The true gift you give over the holidays is yourself and your time,’ says Dr Yeager. He says its important to give this gift to yourself, too.
‘Make time just for yourself. Aren’t you worth 10 minute investment every day?’ he asks.
Dr Lombardo says that if it isn’t possible to spend the holidays with family or friends, it’s best to be ‘intentional’ about how you spend that time. She suggests taking on projects that have fallen to the way side, or volunteering.
Moreover, ‘a lot of stress is caused by anticipation, thinking that the holidays are going to be so awful because I’ll be alone or without a certain person for the first time,’ she says.
She suggests spending time with those who shared experiences with lost loved ones. ‘Get together with someone that knew that loved one and bring that person alive again in your heart.’
No matter what kind of hectic holidays you think you may have ahead of you, it will all be over before you know it.
‘Sometimes, just getting through the holidays is the reward. Remind yourself that it may be difficult, but the holidays will be pass and this will be over,’ Dr Lombardo says.
If you need a little inspiration to get to New Year’s Day, ‘have a carrot waiting for you,’ she says. Plan a reward for yourself, like a massage or nice dinner ‘waiting for you so you can get through,’ she says