Managing Holiday Stress

Holidays are a major source of stress for many people. The symptoms range from the physical (tension, physical illness, fatigue) to the psychological (withdrawal, irritability, jumpiness and alcohol or drug abuse) and the emotional( mood changes, rage, grief). On top of the demands of the holiday season, such symptoms add unnecessary drains on already limited resources. As such, it is important to learn ways to minimize the effects of stress.

Essentially the ways we have for dealing with stress can be seen as two broad groups of approaches; negative approaches and positive approaches. In terms of negative approaches, what we see is the pattern of more or less destructive responses we use to cope with or avoid stress. Overeating, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and distracting ourselves through creating chaos and emergencies in our lives are some of the most common. The down side of these approaches lies in the fact that all of them create additional stress, and none of them really do anything to diminish the stressors we actually are experiencing; they only take them out of our awareness for awhile.
Positive approaches are the approaches which either take away sources of stress or improve our ability to deal with the stresses which we cannot eliminate. For dealing with the holidays, there are specific approaches which can assist in both of these directions
Diminishing Holiday Stressors
Planning for the holidays is often done in an unconscious and passive way. We have set traditions for events which we attend year after year, and as time passes, more events are added, but other events are rarely dropped or changed. Consequently, we tend to become overwhelmed with an increasingly full calendar for the holidays. Conscious planning will allow for us to make aware and considered choices about where to allocate or resources (time energy and money) and how much to allocate for each. By making this process more conscious, we can diminish the stress that is engendered by unexamined "obligations" that are perhaps not as obligatory as we believe.
This planning process will involve a degree of limit setting. It becomes increasingly important to set limits on ourselves, on our children and on our extended families. This includes limiting the number of obligations which we will accept as well as examining and limiting the degree and nature of the obligation. For example, not every event need be attended from beginning to end, and not all events need be dinners. For that matter, not all of the obligations need to take place in December; increasing numbers of workplaces are scheduling holiday parties in January, when the schedules of the employees are more open, and the party is less of an onerous obligation. There is no reason why families cannot take a similar approach and opt for less traditional and less stressful timing of "holiday" events. And also importantly, setting limits on money is a significant aspect of stress reduction. Many people approach the holidays without having clearly examined or budgeted how much money they will spend, and for what. This leads to ongoing stress regarding the upcoming January charge card bills as well as ongoing concerns about the growing awareness that we are spending more than we have. Budgeting the holiday expenses, and then sticking to that budget is a key piece of limiting the financial stress.

Letting Go
Much of the holiday stress is generated by our own internal processes. We have internal expectations that the holidays should be perfect, or that our Norman Rockwell illusions of what the holiday will be will come true. We often have difficulty letting go of control of aspects of the holiday, in order to insure the perfect holiday, and therefore have difficulty with delegating or asking for help in preparing for the big day. These internal fixations set the stage for disappointment, because they stand in the way of accepting and enjoying the actual outcome; an outcome which is rarely consistent with the expected or demanded outcome.
Expectations of the holidays are often unrealistic, whether they be in regard to the behavior of our relatives, the capacity and attitudes of our kids, or even the level and nature of "fun" that we have. It is difficult to have such unrealistic expectations and not come away from the holiday disappointed or even depressed. The most effective way of dealing with this particular obstacle is again to make a conscious awareness of it. To stop just prior to the event, and to make a conscious point of examining what we expect of the event, and to make a conscious attempt to bring those expectations into line with the actual past experiences of similar events.

Neutralizing Stress
The approaches for neutralizing the remaining stress can be summed up in a sentence: Take care of yourself! This can be approached from many directions, but in light of the nature of the holidays, diet is probably a good starting point. Essentially, the issue of diet has three aspects. First, the negative physical aspect of the effects of poor food choices; gaining weight, feeling hung over, blood sugar rocketing up and down due to excessive sweets and simple carbohydrates all have detrimental effects on us physiologically, leading to an overall increase in physiological stressors. Second, the positive aspects of good food choices, due to vitamins and other nutrients, steady sources of energy due to complex foods with high fiber and nutrient value and the aspect of feeling full from eating good foods, which diminishes the allure of junk foods. Thirdly, the detrimental emotional aspects of poor food choices, wherein we rationalize the poor choices because "Christmas is only once a year," then kick ourselves for a month for gaining weight, and for feeling lousy from overeating/drinking. All of these can be handled more easily by focusing on adding high fiber, whole foods (whole fruits, vegetables and whole grains) to our diets, to diminish the impact and quantity of lousy food choices.
After diet, exercise is probably the easiest area to address. Simply getting out of the house for moderate exercise on a regular basis is very helpful from a number of directions. It allows for a break from the high stimulus levels of the home (decorating, cooking, cleaning and other holiday chaos), it helps to diminish the physical tension associated with stress by increasing movement of the tense muscles (which tend to loosen up with movement, and tighten up when stationary), and it improves general feeling of well-being due to increased oxygenation, circulation and calm.
Fatigue is another major area to address, and this is easily addressed by getting more sleep. If your schedule has become increasingly hectic, and you are constantly on the go, trying to get everything done before the big family event, then it is all too easy to cut back on sleep without noticing. This will contribute to a greater frequency of mistakes, accidents, and omissions, as well as higher levels of irritability. Sleep enough at night, try to maintain a similar sleep schedule for weekdays and weeknights both, and take a nap if you need one.

Relaxation is also important, in two senses. First, actively scheduling leisure time, to ensure that you will have down time from the holiday activities, and second, in the sense of "doing" relaxation through meditation or a similar approach which will build in a time (preferably daily) for lower stimulus levels, and for checking in to see what one's general level of stress and tension is, so that one can address these levels accordingly.
Finally, make good use of support systems. This means friends and family, but it especially means using support systems who will actually be supportive of steps taken to allow you to be healthier through the holidays, rather than being upset because they feel somehow cheated by the changes you have needed to make.
Make a point of checking in with yourself weekly during the coming months, to assess how well the above areas are being addressed, and make conscious and structured changes to address any areas which seem to be in need of addressing.
And have a happy and healthy holiday season.