Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

T'is The Season For Holiday Stress

December 10, 2008

"T’is the season to be jolly." It doesn’t feel that way much of the time. Kids and men are having fun. Women are under the gun.

Here are some ideas on when and why the holidays can be a difficult season of the year, along with a few tips on dealing with the stress.

- When you are overloaded. Plan and prepare in advance. Do your shopping early. Shop and cook in advance and freeze the dishes. Know your limits. Don’t do everything - delegate and share the responsibility. Assign dishes to be brought to big meals. Simplify. Say no to activities you really don’t want to do.

Monitor your eating and drinking habits. The holidays are not as enjoyable when they are filled with binging, broken promises and regret. Use moderation when confronted with holiday temptations.

- When you have family conflict. Lower expectations. Let go of fantasies that probably won’t happen. Some issues will remain unresolved, at least for now. Try to let your gift be a gift of forgiveness.

Treat the offending family member as if he and she deserve your most accepting attitude. Open communications around a small issue and work at it a little at a time. Look for evidence of how good they are instead of focusing on their usual faults. Don't wear your feelings on your sleeve. At a minimum, be cordial and pleasant.

- When you are in a new family. Be prepared to negotiate and compromise. Whose traditions do you follow? This is a test of your ability to work together and respect each other’s needs. Start new traditions. Be flexible and figure out solutions that work for both of you.

If you are recently divorced or a parent in a stepfamily, you will be missing your children during part of the holidays. Plan on it and fill your time while they are away. Focus on what is possible instead of what can't be. Be careful of debt in gift giving as you try to make up the hurt and guilt you feel.

- When you are grieving. Reach out to others. Share your grief and loss. Allow others to comfort you.

- When you are strapped for cash. Don’t go overboard on gift giving. You'll have post holiday stress dealing with debt problems. Emphasize the relational and spiritual aspects of the holidays. Focus on worship and the spiritual reasons for celebrating.

Generosity doesn’t mean extravagance, nor does it have to mean material gifts. Enjoy your friends and relatives. Plan games and fun times. Get involved in giving service to others.

- When you are alone. Do things for the less fortunate. Invite someone over. Share the holiday with others in your position. Find a way to be needed. Be nice to yourself. Go somewhere special. Take responsibility for meeting your own needs. Go outside your usual routine. Talk on the phone. Have someone with whom you can express your feelings. Develop your own holiday rituals.

Lose yourself in a special project. Immerse yourself in it. Figure out what you want to do and do it. Make the holidays a special memory so you can look back upon them with satisfaction and say, "That was great!"

- When you are "blue." Accept some sadness, emptiness and loneliness as normal. Expect a letdown and don't judge your moods. Accept what is happening and understand it and then it will be OK. You’re human. That’s OK. Change your self-talk to more positive, hopeful messages. Write in a journal and put your thoughts and feelings on paper. It will provide you with a needed emotional outlet and clarify your perspective.

Don’t compare yourself to what you think the rest of the world is experiencing. Comparisons get people in trouble. Don't drown in the media hype about warm, fuzzy holidays. If you really knew what is going on in other people’s lives you wouldn’t be so hard on yourself.

When it comes to misery, we want company. Find a way of helping someone less fortunate than yourself. Be more realistic about the world and where you fit in it.

Don’t expect the holidays to be as delightful and joyous as when you were a child full of bright-eyed innocence, excitement and expectation. It is hard to duplicate that feeling except vicariously when we are around children. Try to be around children and share in their delight.

- When the holidays are over. Holiday emotions run the gamut from joy and warmth to anxiety, sadness and depression. A post holiday letdown is normal. Most of us will be glad when they are over.

We can’t sustain the high intensity of emotion and activity for too long. We may not even be conscious of how much stress we are under until it is over. When we are at the mountain peak, the next step in down. That is also normal.