3 Big Time Christmas Stressors and How to Deal With Them


photo credit: (matt) via photopin cc

 

by Glynis Sherwood

 

Christmas can be a restorative time or a time of great emotional challenges – or a bit of both.  Personal, social or family expectations that we present ourselves in a continuously upbeat and hyper-social manner can amount to a lot of pressure to be someone we are not.  This sets the stage for stress and anxiety.  On top of external and internal expectations about how we ‘should’ be, Christmas can also be tough due to ongoing relationship challenges, emotional difficulties, compulsive habits or financial problems.

 

If you are anticipating difficulties – or just feeling some stress about Christmas – then read on to learn some helpful strategies for dealing with the season’s tests and trials, so you can have the break you want and deserve.

 

Common Christmas Stressors and How to Manage Them

 

1.  Challenging Family Dynamics

 

Christmas is a time when people tend to long for togetherness and family unity.  Sometimes this longing is for what was, but it can also be common to hope for what never was.  It’s natural to never stop wanting love from family.  However, for people who grew up in families that were not close knit or supportive, this hope can lead to disappointment at best, and disaster at worst.

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people dread extended contact with family, but force themselves to get together with their relatives as they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or, as above, they may be clinging to false hope.

 

What to Do:  Avoid ‘magical thinking’.  If family life has been challenging, do not romanticize your expectations of get togethers, hoping that this time will ‘somehow’ be different.  It takes committmment, effort and clear communication for family’s to heal and grow closer, especially after a history of difficulties..

 

Get clear and honest with yourself about if and how extended family fits into your holiday time.  Be honest regarding your motivation, and realistic regarding your hopes for yourself and others.  Do not expect long standing family problems to get forgotten or resolved during Christmas.  If anything, family stress is likely higher for everyone at this time, leading to poorer coping skills or conflict.

 

Decide ahead of time on a plan.  It may be best for you to set a limit on the amount of time spent with some or all family.  Communicate these plans up front and non-defensively to family members.   For example, “I’m happy to spend some time with you Christmas day.  I will also be spending time with X / or doing X, so I can come for a few hours…”  If family members object or complain, calmly repeat your plans until they realize you aren’t going to back down.

 

Be on the look out for any feelings of guilt or anxiety – yours or others – and don’t let it control you.  Spending more time with family than is healthy for you, or them, is a dis-service to yourself, and a lost opportunity to establish healthier boundaries.

 

2.  Self Worth and Money

 

Although Christmas is promoted as being about togetherness, in our hyper- consumerist society gift giving frequently trumps that sentiment.  Many people have limited purchasing power and are unable to buy gifts, or gifts that they believe are ‘good enough’ for others.  This situation can cause tremendous stress when folks on a limited income feel that their money problems have been exposed, leading to feelings of tremendous vulnerability at the prospect of having to explain themselves to others, possibly invoking unwanted pity, criticism or unsolicited offers of help.  Other people end up in the painful position of disappointing their children, causing them to question their value as a parent.  Any of these circumstances can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, anxiety or shame.

 

What to Do:  Although this can be extremely challenging, try and think about what would be meaningful and beneficial to the people you wish to gift.  Would they benefit as much or more from a service from someone they trust, e.g. pet sitting.  Could you make something special and rare for them, e.g. homemade jam.  Those kinds of gifts are rare these days, which is also what makes them special.

 

With children, search out fun, inexpensive activities.  With older kids you may need to explain that finances are tight, but you will do your best to spend quality time with them.  Ask them what they would like to do or receive given the circumstances.  You can empathize with any disappointment regarding lack of expensive gifts, but you don’t have to wallow in it.  In the long run, feeling loved, cared for and special is what kids remember and cherish well into adulthood

 

3.  Alcohol and Other Mood Altering Activities

 

In western culture it’s normative to feel both pressure and permission to party to excess.  It’s a temporary time of letting go of the daily routine and responsibility of earning a living.  People can equate this ‘freedom’ with a green light  to give into over-indulging in alcohol and food.  On top of this passport to a temporary vacation, some people are troubled by difficult emotions during holiday time which, if not dealt with in a healthy manner, can lead to self-medicating pain.  Feelings of loss, grief, regret, anxiety, sadness can be particularly triggering.For individuals in recovery, especially early recovery, it’s critical that this time be managed well. People who have longer term recovery also need to be mindful of unanticipated triggers – things that can go wrong – and stressors at Christmas, such as family reunions and being around others who are over-indulging and, perhaps inviting them along for the ride..

 

What to Do:  If you are in recovery from addiction you must make a plan.  This could mean locating 12 step meetings in the community where you will be spending Christmas or, if no in person meetings are available or you wish to be more discreet, accessing online peer support and meetings such as SMART Recovery.

 

Be mindful of your own unique triggers.  Don’t put yourself in high risk situations, where folks are overindulging or you have to deal with difficult people.  Above all don’t do that one thing:  drink or use drugs to cope with stress.For others who don’t have a problem with addiction, but also don’t want to go overboard and have regrets, it can also be extremely helpful to have a plan.  Decide ahead of time how you want to feel at the end of each day and make a committment to that decision.  You may wish to go as far as limiting yourself to one to two drinks or not drinking at all.

Focus on knowing the difference between what you can and cannot control.  For example, how much time you spend socializing is something you can control; how much your brother has to drink is not. Concentrate on the former and work towards letting go of the latter.

 

Some Final Thoughts

 

Stress and anxiety tend to be the most challenging emotions to deal with at Christmas.  Minimize the impact of holiday stress by focusing on:

  • Making Plans – Planning is the lynch pin of a manageable Christmas, as it greatly increases the opportunity for doing what you want and need to do, and minimizing aggravation.  Make your plans in advance, and commit to managing your time.
  • Direct Communication – Tell your family and friends how you plan to spend Christmas (i.e. how much time, where and with whom).
  • Realistic Expectations – Lower the bar, even if nobody else is doing this.
  • Down Time – Take time every day for yourself, and slow things down as you need to.
  • Exercise – As much as possible maintain the daily fitness routines you participate in the rest of the year.
  • Focus on Gratitude – Doing something for someone else can be a positive antidote to any holiday blues.
Good planning, tempered with realism and a daily commitment to taking care of your physical and emotional well being are simple but key ingredients to a healthy, happier Christmas.

Need Help Moving On From the Holiday Blues?  Work With Me In the New Year!

Counselling is available in person in Vancouver Canada or by Video worldwide.

Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor (BC), helps people transcend Negative Family Dynamics,  Low Self Worth, Anxiety, Grief, Trauma and Addictive Behaviors.