Stress Less this Holiday Season

December 2018

written by Stephanie Hobby with Gwen Felten, MA, LCPC, PC and Dennis Muri, LCSW, LAC

Music is streaming through stores, greenery and lights are sprinkled throughout town, and parties fill our calendars. But these icons, heralding the “most wonderful time of the year” can be in stark contrast to the amount of stress, anxiety, and depression, the season can bring.

Sometimes all the celebrations, socializing and busyness can leave you feeling overwhelmed and empty. Counselors Gwen Felten and Dennis Muri from Northwest Counseling Center say the key to avoiding the holiday slump is setting realistic expectations of yourself and others.

“Stress can be viewed as the gap between one’s expectation and one’s ability to achieve those expectations,” said Muri. So while you may have a Clark Griswold-esque vision of the perfect Christmas, complete with family peacefully sipping hot cocoa in front of a roaring fire, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s simply that: a vision. Reality is filled with limitations, whether they are from time, energy, finances, mental ability, or emotional stability.

“So, to reduce the gap, we either have to lower our expectations or boost our ability to achieve," Muri wrote. “Understand that if I allow that gap to get too large, I’m going to get overwhelmed.”

Interestingly, the overwhelmed brain kicks into fight, flight, or freeze; once in that mode, it’s easy to make emotional choices that aren’t well-thought out, which can lead to flaring tempers or just feeling overwhelmed and empty, prompting greater stress, and the cycle continues.

Felten emphasizes the need to set realistic expectations of the season. “How people cope with holiday stress can be very similar to how we cope with everyday stress. However, holiday stress seems to be ‘Godzilla’ size stress to some.”

They offer the following tips to reduce strain:

  • Have realistic expectations; know we cannot please everyone.
  • Enjoy the season. Don’t feel pressured into cramming everything into a few days. Instead, spread your get-togethers throughout the season. Focus on creating fun memories by not setting a tight agenda; just enjoy each other’s company.
  • Prioritize and celebrate what’s really important to you and your family and let go of other ideas. “Give yourself permission that every type of cookie does not have to be baked; every gift doesn’t have to be that unique, super gift; every meal does not have to be perfect. Give yourself permission to let go,” said Felten. “Everyone seems to have different holiday traditions that are precious to them. If it is a priority cherish it, plan it and enjoy.” But realize that not everyone has the same traditions, so it's important to be respectful and kindly say no if something doesn't fit with your family's schedule or priorities.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Your objective is to have an enjoyable season. Laugh when things go south and don't get too upset when the sweet potatoes catch on fire in the oven, or the tree falls over. Realize that those things often make the best memories. Felton's motto is "perfectly imperfect."

  • Practice stress relief; take care of your own emotions and physical well-being. Make a list of ways to de-stress and practice them during the holidays. Get plenty of rest, take walks, meditate, pray, read a book, do yoga, excuse yourself from the party, or watch a funny Christmas movie, especially ones that show others’ not-so-perfect Christmases.
  • Assess what you can and can’t control. “Wasting limited time, energy, and resources on things you can’t control robs you of efficiency and productivity that are realized when we focus on what we can control,” Muri said.
  • Be proactive rather than reactive. Be pursuant rather than avoidant.
  • When feeling confused, use curious clarifying questions to explore and gather more information rather than make large conclusions from little bits of information.
  • Be assertive and avoid the pitfalls of being passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Being assertive is sharing how you see the situation, how you feel about it; including identifying, naming and sharing the one-word names of feelings. Share what you would like to see happen, but know that you might not get your way.
  • Trust others to help, but not beyond what they have learned, and don't trust them far below what they have learned as both increases the risk of failure.
  • Try to maintain affirming beliefs that incorporate appreciation, recognition, and giving credit, rather than fostering defeating beliefs and criticism.
  • Use respectful tones of voice and body language. Research shows that 90-95% of communication is through body language and tone of voice, not words. Respect feels safe, and safety reduces stress.

Both Felten and Muri emphasize that you can’t expect yourself to incorporate all of these strategies; work on a few of them and realize that by taking small steps, you’re on your way to happier holidays.

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