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How to Cope With Stress During the Holidays

By Morris Cohen | November 22, 2012 2:24pm
 Norman Rockwell's iconic painting, "Freedom from Want" can paint a pressure-filled expectation of a perfect holiday.
Norman Rockwell's iconic painting, "Freedom from Want" can paint a pressure-filled expectation of a perfect holiday.
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NEW YORK CITY — Grandmother, wearing a white cooking apron, presents a plump, golden-brown turkey, cooked to perfection, as Grandfather, dressed in a suit, waits to carve the bird. The table is set with the family’s finest china on a white lace tablecloth. The relatives at the table are all beaming with anticipation of the Thanksgiving feast that awaits them. No one is arguing or unhappy.

It's the perfect holiday celebration straight out of Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting “Freedom from Want” — but for most people preparing to celebrate a real family holiday in the real world, it is just a fantasy.

For all too many of us, the holiday season is, instead, rife with stress, frustration, sadness and general dissatisfaction. It doesn’t have to be that way. Looking at the holidays without the rose-colored glasses doesn't make for a grumpy, cynical time — quite the contrary: being realistic about your expectations of the holiday ensures you won't be overly disappointed when it doesn't live up to your ideal.

Here are some ways to deal with the holidays that will hopefully temper if not alleviate the stress:

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Many of us look forward to the holiday season as a happy time filled with parties and glad tidings. However, this sentiment is by no way universal. For many of us the holidays are a reminder to sadder times, whether it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s death this time of year, or bad memories from the distant past. The holidays sometimes have a way of making us feel more alone.

Its important to be honest about our emotions. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they are just a reflection of where you are at any moment. Resist the temptation to say “I shouldn’t feel sad (or angry, or frustrated), it’s the holidays. I’m supposed to feel happy.” Instead, try validating your feelings, for example: “I feel angry right now because the holidays are stressful,” or “going to dad’s this year is going to be painful because I’m still feeling sad about mom's death.”

Try sharing your feelings with to someone you trust. Sometimes the simple act of admitting how we really feel, to a person we know will be empathetic, has a way of helping us let go of the feeling, and move on.

Accepting the Imperfect Family

Unless you grew up with parents named Brady or Huxtable, nobody has a perfect family. This is an important premise to keep in mind when getting together with loved ones. If your expectation is the perfect family holiday script written straight from Hollywood, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. If you accept that your family is human, flaws and all, you will be better prepared to deal with the difficult emotions that may come up when you get together.

Another common pressure my clients feel is that they have to change their relatives during the holidays. In my practice, I try to help my clients realize what they can change and what they do not have control over in their lives. Family almost inevitably comes up. Your cousin who’s judgmental and always criticizing your kids? You cannot change her personality. Your grandfather who argues with you about politics? You can't change his beliefs. Your mother who refuses to discuss touchy family subjects? You can't change her resistance.

However, this does not mean you have no control. You may not be able to control your family members, but you can control yourself and how you react to their behavior.

For that cousin who’s hyper-critical: give her a call before the holidays and explain to her that while you know she’s trying to be helpful, it’s hurts for you to hear her criticisms during family events. Ask her kindly to be mindful of that this year. For your grandfather: try suggesting at the beginning of the night to take a break from politics this year, and focus on other topics of conversation. And for your mother: try reflecting back to her that you can sense how difficult some topics of conversation are for her, and you are there for her if she ever wants to talk.

Taking Care of Yourself

Part of taking control is making the choice to stay healthy during the holidays. For example, keep to your normal routine. As I mentioned in a previous column, this could mean going to your weekly gym classes, meditating, attending religious services, whatever helps you maintain a sense of well-being and connectedness.

Healthy eating during the holidays presents its own stressors, as sweets and high calorie meals are omnipresent. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a feast for a day. Just don’t make it a 45-day feast. And be mindful of the difference between eating due to joy versus eating due to stress. The same goes with alcohol. If you feel like your having difficulty with control over food, alcohol or other addictive behaviors, I encourage you to reach out to the 12-Step Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

Stress From Gift Giving

Gift giving and receiving is one of those areas where there are unwritten and arbitrary rules, and every family’s rules are different. However, don’t get bogged down with what’s appropriate and what’s not. Just ask yourself one simple question: “What do I want to give that I can afford?” This helps you stay conscious of the desire you have to give a gift. It also helps you remember that the person is important to you. Keep in mind that everybody’s budget is different, and there is no perfect formula for gift-giving. You may also want to think about a spending limit for gifts between family members. This way, no one feels like they are spending too much during the holidays.

Again, be honest about where you and your family are at. You may feel it’s important to give your child a new Nintendo Wii U for the holidays. However, if you can't afford this gift, the stress of going over budget, or going into debt will be far greater than the transitory happiness you will get from giving this gift. While it may be a difficult conversation, there are ways of telling your child if the family cannot afford the gift(s) they want.

Whether it's being honest about your expectations, or having open conversations with your friends and relatives, the tools to surviving a stress-filled holiday are at your fingertips.

Morris Cohen is a Clinical Social Worker, Licensed by the State of New York, and maintains a private psychotherapy and consultation practice in Midtown Manhattan.  You can visit his website at morriscohenlcsw.com.