Tips for Managing Stress During the Holidays

Copyright © 2015, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

Most of us have seen the iconic Norman Rockwell “Saturday Evening Post” cover depicting family members gathered around a holiday dinner table (You can easily find this image online, titled “Freedom from Want”.).  The table is laden with delicious foods, and the patriarch of the family is about to carve the turkey.  Everyone's face radiates pleasure and anticipation.  This is the image many of us have for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.

Ads for holiday gift shopping appear earlier and earlier each year, it seems.  It's now common for Christmas shopping “opportunities” to appear on TV before Halloween.  Sponsors no longer make a pretense of allowing us to enjoy Thanksgiving before the full frontal assault on our wallets.  “Black Friday”, which used to begin the morning after Thanksgiving festivities, has now been accelerated to the afternoon—even the morning—of Thanksgiving Day.  I've seen department store Christmas trees as early as July!  So much for being able to truly savor one holiday at a time.

And the expectations regarding gift-giving are enough to put one in a true quandary.  Just what is the perfect gift?  For a child, is it the latest toy?  Remember Tickle Me Elmo?  Cabbage Patch dolls?  Grown women were tussling in the aisles of toy stores to snag those hot items.  For both children and adolescents, what's the latest must-have electronic item?  A PlayStation 4?  Some iteration of a smart phone or a tablet?  And what about the adults in your life?  Is it a new big-screen TV, a three-carat diamond, or maybe that luxury car sporting the world's largest crimson bow?

The pressure's on, folks, make no mistake, and it can wear you out and wear you down.  So, how to get a grip on holiday insanity before it gets a grip on you, and head into the new year feeling rested, renewed, and optimistic?  Let's look at some concrete tips that you can use at this time of year.

  • Set realistic expectations.  If there's a longstanding history of conflict and discord in your family, don't expect that a three-day or week-long visit is going to heal old wounds.  If the visit isn't planned and managed properly, there's even a possibility that a family visit at such a highly charged time of year may drive old wounds deeper.  Should you even plan a holiday visit, or perhaps look for another date?  If the potential for emotional fireworks is significant, you may want to think about making other plans, while offering the option of a family visit when expectations aren't quite as high.  Perhaps a visit in January or during the children's spring break would be an acceptable, less stressful alternative.
  • Set appropriate boundaries.  This applies not only to whether and when to visit with family, but to expectations about gift giving.  Many parents and grandparents understandably feel the impulse to indulge their children and grandchildren at the holidays.  But is it worth the shock and stress of the credit card bills that inevitably arrive in January?

    This dilemma is actually a good opportunity for parents to have a conversation about their values about money and how it should be spent.  Parents can clarify what they'd like their children to learn about being good stewards of financial resources.  Most parents would probably agree that it's not wise to indulge a child's every whim, but may need to decide what their appropriate limits are. 

    And gifts for children and other relatives can be a source of contention during the holidays.  It may be helpful to agree with grandparents and other relatives that a single gift for your child is appreciated and sufficient.  There is the well-established practice of drawing names in advance (each person buys one gift for the person whose name they've drawn) and setting a limit as to how much should be spent on the gift (for example, $10, $20, $30, or whatever is reasonable for each family).  This tradition works quite well for large families, where purchasing multiple gifts for an entire family could become financially burdensome and logistically out of control.
  • Remember, it's “just one day”.    Yes, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's are a single day on the calendar.  But the truth is that so many of us anticipate the holiday season and can easily become stressed out by thinking we need to have food, decorations, and gifts perfectly planned.  So, again, if you can do some advance planning, make some realistic lists for those categories, you're well on your way to having a pleasant holiday.

    Another strategy to managing stress during the season is to both remind yourself that you're preparing for a few days on the calendar, but to enjoy the spirit of the season.  So, when you're running errands or watching holiday ads and programs on TV, simply sit back and enjoy them.  Let them get you in the holiday spirit, but without feeling the pressure that you need to replicate what you're seeing or get busy prepping for the upcoming holiday.  Every holiday song or carol that you hear, every decoration you see in your town, where you shop, or on TV, can be a way that you connect with and savor the spirit of the season.  
  • Pick something to focus on for entertaining or hosting.  The temptation is there for many of us to try to “do it all” and in a big way.  Unless you have unlimited time to prepare beforehand, that's just not possible for most of us.   Instead, why not pick one or two special things to focus on?  If you really enjoy baking, for example, you might pick a couple of your favorite cookie recipes to make, or a special bread.  Perhaps you like roasting a turkey for one of the holidays.  That's great, but enlist others' help with side dishes.  Let your spouse and older children work on a holiday tree and decorations.  Graciously accept genuine offers of help from those whom you'll be entertaining!
  • Plan something fun and relaxing for after the holidays.  Many of us experience a bit of a post-holiday letdown.  The weeks of preparation and the stress of entertaining or even of being a guest in someone else's home can leave us feeling a bit empty afterward.  It can be helpful to plan something simple to help offset this, whether it's a weekend getaway or even just seeing a movie you've been curious about.  Some people who have multiple events to attend during the holidays and won't be able to entertain in their home opt for planning a casual post-holiday get-together, such as an open house with light hors d'oeuvres.  We all need something to look forward to, regardless of the time of year!
  • Remember, there's always next year!  Every holiday celebration comes with its share of challenges, whether it's the guest list, meals, hosting difficult family members, unruly children, selecting gifts, etc.  Rather than staying stuck in disappointment, regret, or even anger over these things, assess what did versus what didn't work well, and bear that in mind when the time comes to plan for the next holiday season.  Don't hesitate to “break the mold” and do something different.  Traditions are lovely and heart-warming, but only if you're not totally stressed out by them!