The holiday season is typically a time of sharing and fun with family and friends. But not everyone excitedly anticipates the holidays. "Holidays can be a source of great stress and sadness," says Marcia Overstreet, licensed professional counselor with ParkPlace Counseling Center in Medford.
"The months from November to January 1, I call the "Holiday Haul," says Amois Williams, life coach and founder of Moxy Life in Medford. "It's a time of year when — women especially — feel like they have to hold it together, for themselves as well as for everyone else." So how can we navigate the emotional hurdles of the holidays?
Challenge #1 — Expectations
"Holidays are filled with expectations," confirms Barbara Massey, licensed marriage and family therapist, also of ParkPlace. "Our emotional needs can easily get activated by Norman Rockwell-style commercials that focus on an ideal, secure, perfectly behaved, well-dressed family who is totally contented." The unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves and others, or even expectations we assume others have of us can be a vicious cycle, if we don't recognize them.
"Let go of the 'shoulds'," says Williams. "Instead, get real with what is most important to you, not what you think "should" be important to you "¦ How do you want to relate to your husband, sister, brother-in-law, etc.? What would make this time easy? Fun? Refreshing? You will amaze yourself what the simple act of writing out these intentions can make on your holiday experience."
Challenge #2 — Family
"Increased family time is one of the largest factors contributing to holiday stress," says Williams. Travel, pressure to get along, and family patterns can become overwhelming. "The holidays do not have to be ruined as a result," says Overstreet. "Be aware of what you can do to make a healthy difference and plan ahead. Be realistic "¦ avoid the pressure to be perfect. Be careful not to fall into old roles. Set boundaries and limit your time with difficult people." And always "focus on what is joyful and meaningful to you, what you are grateful for." If the family situation is too difficult, consider professional guidance in finding new ways to prompt positive changes.
Challenge #3 — Health
Often your emotional health is directly linked to your physical stamina. "Take care of yourself," encourages Overstreet. "Pay attention to your own feelings and needs, get enough sleep, eat well, watch your alcohol intake, pace yourself, and enjoy supportive and caring people." Williams adds, "Seasonal depression is very common, and can intensify holiday stress." Always, consult a professional if you have depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues or are feeling suicidal, says Massey.
Challenge #4 — Loneliness
"Moving to a new city, being estranged or away from family, military deployment and various other reasons can cause us to be alone during the holidays," recognizes Overstreet. "We can still celebrate what is meaningful to us." Take the opportunity to volunteer your time and energy, or to create a "family" of friends who are also on their own.
Challenge #5 — Grief
"The holidays can be particularly distressing for those who have lost a loved one," says Overstreet. "During the holidays, family and friends typically gather to celebrate their traditions. This can be a painful reminder of loss and how life has changed." She encourages those still grieving to honor their loved one and find support by sharing with others. "Do not feel guilty if you find enjoyment during the holidays. It's OK to let joy seep in," she says.
Challenge #6 — Finances
Overstreet and Williams agree that money is a prime culprit in holiday expectations and pressures. "Have a family conversation about what is most important and meaningful about the holidays advises Overstreet. "What are your family priorities?" Then make a realistic budget and shopping schedule and stick to it. "You may just find that you don't have to spend much to give thoughtful gifts and create a joyful experience your family will remember for years to come," says Williams.
And in the midst of holiday stress, don't forget there is an upside, reminds Massey. "Holidays serve a protective function (even while being stressful) because we are hopeful that our needs will be met, we are often with people who love us (even if they bug us) and the community offers outreach programs." So prepare yourself and make the most of the coming season. Happy holidays.