The holidays are a time of joy, excitement, and, of course, a much-needed respite from work. But for a large majority of Americans they can also be a great source of anxiety. According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, nearly one quarter of Americans reported feeling “extreme stress” during the holiday. Other holiday stress statistics show that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a “lack of time,” 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money,” and 51 percent are stressed out about the “pressure to give or get gifts,” according to an article on AllOneHealth.com.
Luckily, the annual overwhelm can be minimized with a few stress-management tactics. We spoke with Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., A.C.T., President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and Owner of the Anxiety Treatment Center for Greater Chicago, to nail down some emotional survival strategies that’ll get you get you to the New Year with less of a headache.
Keep it simple.
Cassiday says many parents — especially first-time mothers — feel pressure to make a holiday the most meaningful event in their kids’ lives. That’s a great goal, she says, but often times it leads to cramming so much in and stressing over perfecting it all that the experience ends up being unpleasant — for everyone involved.
“Kids are more likely to remember your attitude and how you felt towards them as opposed to all the little details,” Cassiday says. If you’re a ball of anxiety because there’s not enough time to craft all the Christmas ornaments, wrap the presents, or cook the perfect supper for each night of Hanukkah, that’s what’s going to be associated with the event. Cassiday advises slowing down and find simpler ways to celebrate these occasions with your family to reduce holiday stress.
Don’t overdose on family time.
One mistake many of us make during the holidays is feeling pressured to have everyone — grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. — in the same place 24/7, says Cassiday. “The reality is most of you have been living separately, forming your own opinions, and developing your own routines for years,” she points out. “Eventually, that means you’re more than likely to get on each others’ nerves.”
Estimate the average amount of time you can spend with your relatives that you’ll enjoy and plan to limit your visiting hours accordingly. “This way,” Cassiday says, “you don’t end up leaving with a bad taste in your mouth.”
This may mean spending one or two nights in a hotel or carving out personal time with your child, your significant other, or just for you. (Offering to make a grocery or booze run can often be a perfect excuse to escape — with extra time off chalked up to “long lines at the store.” Or you may want to recruit a relative for a brief stroll.)
Introducing a new game, activity, or movie into the mix that everyone can enjoy together — rather than, say, falling back on an old tradition that leads to arguments — can also amplify enjoyment and dial down collective discomfort.
Brace yourself for difficult people.
Encountering a relative or in-law who rubs you the wrong way is an inevitable part of the holidays for many people. Though we may to give these family members the benefit of the doubt, the hope that they will change — coupled with our belief that we can control them — frequently leads to disappointment, explains Cassiday. A better bet is to unburden yourself of the responsibility to keep them in check and do your best to radiate holiday cheer to whoever else is around.
“What makes you feel powerless is trying to make someone behave better,” explains Cassiday. “Instead, think about gaining power from not letting their behavior wreck your day.”
Kick off any occasion you’re a part of by making a positive observation about someone in the room — perhaps even about that difficult person. (“That’s a lovely sweater, Aunt Margaret!” or “It’s so great to see the old menorah up!”) This makes it harder for the negative person to drag down the mood and it recruits people towards the mindset of sharing joy rather than criticizing and griping, says Cassiday.
Make time for mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to improve wellbeing and lower holiday stress levels. It can also make the holidays feel more rewarding. Cassiday suggests using seasonal traditions as occasions for practicing mindfulness. For instance, if you’re lighting a candle each night of Hanukkah, ask your children (and any guests) to close their eyes and focus on the smell, the sounds, and the feel of the room you’re all in as you do so. Additionally, instruct them (and yourself) to observe any thoughts that come up as passing clouds, allowing each to come and go naturally without clinging to it, trying to suppress it, or judging it as good or bad. Allow yourself at least 3 minutes to do this exercise and check in with everyone who did it with you to see how it felt for them.
Cassiday says you can also use holiday food as a chance to engage in some mindfulness: While eating a candy cane or a holiday cookie, guide your children to focus on the taste, the smell, and the feel of the item in their mouths. The point is to bring the attention back to the present, to help everyone slow down and savor it more.
– By Katherine Schreiber