-by Dr. Dana Harris


The holiday season is rapidly approaching!  For many, it’s an opportunity to rekindle the feelings of family togetherness, meaningful traditions, spiritual rejuvenation, precious memories of childhood and the innocence of a moment in time long ago.  For others, the holiday season can bring about feelings of being overwhelmed, depression and loneliness, coupled with hectic times and shiny new possessions that probably won’t be paid off until March. Family relationships, finances and the physical demands of the holiday season are all common triggers of stress. During this time of year, it comes as no surprise that old patterns of behavior began to emerge, stress levels rise and for some, the ability to cope flies out the window. If the thought of the holiday season is already stressing you out, you’re not alone.  Many people have an expectation of the perfect holiday, which is usually something out of a movie or television show but in real life however, last minute things come up, appointments are postponed, schedules are reshuffled, people arrive late, house decorations aren’t perfect, there’s shopping lists to be completed and the perfect dinner that we planned so well is ruined.  In fact, between stressful end-of-year deadlines, family dysfunction and loss, overscheduling, overindulging and overspending, it’s easy for the holiday season to feel not-so-merry and bright.

Some experts agree that the holiday blues is a real phenomenon. For an overwhelming majority, the holiday season adds a whole new layer of activities and responsibilities both real and imagined.  It’s easy to become physically and emotionally exhausted during this time of year especially with the added demands of parties, shopping, decorating, baking, cleaning and entertaining. In addition, trying to satisfy the expectations of parents, sibling  and children can be too much. And when stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup.

During my early childhood years, holidays focused on family traditions and rituals meant to create meaningful experiences. Nowadays, holidays often revolve around obligations, expectations and going through the motions but this year, reframe by arming yourself with a few coping strategies. I highly recommend creating your very own action plan to cope with challenging people and situations so that  you can reclaim your power and feel more in control. We can’t stop the world from turning, but we can better manage the emotional challenges of the holidays better.

• Be a Proactive Planner.  A great way of preventing holiday stress is by planning and prioritizing. Heightened pressure and fear of not getting everything done are the most common triggers for the holiday blues. Careful planning can eliminate the rush of last-minute things to do, things that often zap your energy. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers whether it’s financial pressures or personal demands. With a little pre-planning and some positive thinking, you will be able to find peace and joy during this special time of year. The holidays don’t need to take a toll on your health.  Give yourself permission to let some things go.  Take a moment each morning to gather your thoughts, make a to-do list and check off the two or three items that are important to you. Let yourself entertain the idea of letting go of many of the others or at least reducing them in some way. Create a budget. There’s so much pressure on people to spend, spend, spend.  Planning and creating a budget will eliminate overspending. Keep your commitments and spending in check. It is quite easy to forget that the holiday season is about “presence” and not presents. Yes, the holiday season is a busy time but keep a relaxed and positive outlook. When we plan effectively, we will be able to give the best gift we can possibly give ourselves and those around us which is our own peace of mind.

• Reflect, Balance and Rejuvenate.  The holidays don’t have to be perfect. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well.  Choose a few to hold on to and be open to creating new ones.  It’s easy to get caught up in the decorating, shopping, baking and wrapping, but are you enjoying any of it?  Stop, breathe and take a few minutes to look around and enjoy the decorations on the lampposts. Look at the beautiful lights on the tree.  Inhale the warm aroma of those delicious cookiesmell the scent from the freshly baked pumpkin pies. Be present. Sit down, relax and enjoy a cup of tea. Don’t forget the basics and be sure to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and take your vitamins. Time invested in yourself is worth it. The holidays can bring out the best and worst in people so this year give yourself and other family members the best stress-free version of yourself that you can.

• Acknowledge Your Feelings. If someone close to you passes away or is ill and you can’t be with love ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief.  Take time to cry or express your feelings.  You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season. Embrace your memories. No one can truly understand how it feels to experience the loss of a loved one during the holiday season. For me, it’s personal. The holiday season is a very sensitive time as my dad’s birthday was celebrated on Christmas Eve. It’s been 12 years since he passed away and every year the cherished memories and special moments we once shared begins to surface. It has taken me over a decade to realize that the pleasant memories of my dad during this time of year is one of the greatest legacies that I have.Dad was such a devoted and proud family man.  He was also a perfectionist when it came to him assembling the decorations on our family tree.  During my quiet moments, I can remember sitting back as a kid, watching my dad for hours at a time vigorously cleaning and putting up the many colorful lights and decorations around the house with tunes from Lena Horne and Nat King Cole playing on our floor model stereo. It is these memories that would often bring both laughter and tears to my eyes. Do what you can to spend as much time with friends and family members who truly understand that the holiday season can increase your sense of loss. Be with those who will allow or encourage you to express your feelings without judgement, folks who will inspire you to share your memories.  Tell your stories and take time to look thru the family photo albums. What makes the holiday season so special is that it presents each of us with an opportunity to celebrate our victories and commiserate our losses with those who are most important to us.

• Be Grateful and Realize What’s Really Important. Both in real life and on social media, it can be difficult to avoid comparing yourself with others around Christmas time. If you are dealing with family drama, stress from work issues, post-partum, bad relationships or experiencing a health issue, stop comparing your holiday experience with others. Coveting is a recipe for increased sadness and isolation. Holiday advertising can often make you forget what the holiday season is about. If you should find your holiday list running longer than your budget, you may want to consider scaling back. Research has shown that taking the time to be grateful every day has enormous physical and mental health benefits. Being grateful for what we have, helps build our immune systems, keeps us in touch with the positive aspects of life and connects us with others.  Why not start a holiday gratitude journal?  From now until the New Year, take a few minutes each day to jot down at least three things you are grateful for in your life. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. It could be as simple as receiving a long-distance phone call from an old college buddy, helping an elderly woman with her groceries in the parking lot at a busy mall or simply having a grateful heart for having enough food to eat. The first step to a happy holiday season is to determine what you want from the experience. Consider what you want from the holidays, not what others want from you. Sit back and visualize your plans for a fun-filled and memorable holiday season with your friends and family.

• Engage in Healthy Conversations. If there is worry about heated disagreement or negative conversations, focus on what you and your family have in common. Families might even plan activities they can do together that foster good wholesome fun and laughter. We all know that even with good intentions, unexpected challenges may still catch us off guard. If it starts to feel uncomfortable during certain conversations, simply excuse yourself. There’s always that one uncle or family member in every family who can be offensive and outspoken. They are normally the ones who appear to be the expert on every topic.  If this should occur, keep the conversation light and on “safe” subjects (avoid controversial topics like politics, religion and money). You may even consider repeating an encouraging chant in your head such as “I can handle this” or “Setting boundaries is a healthy form of self-respect.” You can also use “I” statements to calmly and kindly express your feelings and needs. However, if the conversation is too irritating, you can always excuse yourself or leave early!  I strongly believe in setting boundaries and declining invitations to gatherings or events that are likely to be highly stressful or painful. We can’t always predict the future, but we can reasonably anticipate challenging circumstances based on what has occurred in the past. Being realistic allows us to problem-solve ahead of time.

• Be a Good Holiday Role Model. Do what you can to emphasize to your kids that it’s not always about the tons of presents but giving and receiving a few heartfelt gifts. By starting early with meaningful traditions, talking candidly about the true meaning of the holidays and focusing on toughtful gift giving, you can help mold your child’s’ perspective. Teach your children the key is moderation and to feel appreciative with what is given. Volunteerism is another inspiring way to show  kindness towards others. The phrase, “One person can make a difference” is a direct and empowering message for children. Teaching your child the importance of engaging in community service projects can be a humbling experience, particularly during the holidays. Voluntering can bring kids together with people of different backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities and various ages.  They will soon discover that even the most diverse individuals can be united by common values. When kids are involved in helping others who are less fortunate, they will be able to envision for themselves all the remarkable things to be grateful for in their own lives. This life long lesson will teach them that giving comes in many forms, not just as presents.  Your kids will come to know that giving from the heart means so much more—and last so much longer—than any gift that money can buy.

• Take Good Care of Yourself and Don’t Abandon Healthy Habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all.  Be mindful when it comes to your own tipping points regarding holiday indulgences. This could only add to your stress and guilt. You already know your limits for alcohol and sweets. Listen to your inner voice and use common sense to avoid doing something that you may regret later. Incorporating regular physical activities each day and getting plenty of sleep are steps in the right direction. Time invested in yourself each day will pay off big dividends and promote a better sense of well-being throughout the holiday season. Pace yourself.  While extra special holiday gatherings can be enticing, you don’t have to compromise your physical or mental health by doing too much. Try your best to make good conscious choices and relax to restore energy.  You may feel pressured to be everything to everyone, but remember that you’re only one person and can only accomplish certain things. Your endurance will be better if you stick to a regular routine as much a possible. Do what you can to engage in activities that bring you a sense of peace and contentment. Whether its exercising, meditating, getting a massage, reading a book, enjoying coffee with a friend or simply going to bed at a reasonable time, we all need some down time to recharge our batteries. Learning to manage and prioritize your time, commitment and family activities can reduce stress, allowing you to enjoy your holidays and focus your energies on the things that matter most to you and your family.

The holidays are a great opportunity to enjoy time with others, to celebrate life, to be grateful and to reflect on what’s truly important. There are several helpful steps that you can take to lessen holiday stress and feel more optimistic about the season. Being realistic, planning and seeking support can help ward off stress and depression. When all is over and done, you may even end up enjoying the holidays more than you thought you would. In fact, you might even feel more energized as you reflect on what went well this holiday season. If this occurs, hats off to you! Wishing you and your lovely family a safe, peaceful joyous holiday season.

This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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