Advice & Features Articles

What to do when stress overshadows the joy of the season

By T.J. Griffin and Kelly Jameson, Ph.D., LPC-S

Almost everyone would agree that the holidays are wonderful, but the holidays are also stressful. Our tidings of comfort and joy can easily be devoured by the demands of the season. Do they have to be so hard? Is there anything we can do to make them less wearing?

We conducted a survey to find out what stresses people the most during the holidays. Then we asked Dallas therapist Dr. Kelly Jameson for some expert advice on how to make the holidays live up to our do-it-all, be-it-all, and buy-it-all expectations during the most wonderful time of the year.

Q: In our survey, most people said their number-one source of stress around the holidays is “obligations” and “expectations.” Why do you think this is the biggest issue?

A: The holidays represent a time of joy, togetherness, and connection—things we don’t get enough of these days. We all crave this connectedness and joy so, in short, we over-do it. We aren’t great at scheduling family time that sparks joy, togetherness, and connection during the year. So we feel obligated to pack as much joy as possible into the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We go for the concentrated power punch of joy, crammed into four weeks. As a result, we suffer the consequences of what I call the 4Fs: Festive Family Fun Fatigue. 

Q: What can we do to reduce the stress around the obligations and expectations of the holidays?

A: There’s a twofold approach to this: one is internal, and the other is external.

Internally, practice gratitude. Remind yourself each morning that the holidays are designed to be joyous and be grateful that you have people around you during this season. It’s the people, not the table setting. It’s the people, not the uniqueness of the gift. It’s the people, not the cleanliness. It’s the people, not the meals.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. If you perpetuate the holiday hype, you may feel overwhelmed. If you choose not to accommodate the stress, you will have a very different experience. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether you think it will be stressful or not stressful, you will be right!   

Externally, call your shot! If you’re hosting or traveling, let your family know well in advance that you are choosing an “old-fashioned holiday,” a “simple season,” or a “classic Christmas” this year as a way to set the tone that communicates less-is-more in all areas.  

Do the work! Like many things in life, humans want the desired outcome, but often they don’t want to do the work. Looking at the calendar and getting organized in a way that works for you and your family is key. A quick Google search for “holiday planning” will help you organize your lists and think of things you had not even considered. 

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a few funny shots of their holiday card family photo shoot…in October. You might be thinking, “That’s ridiculous. It’s October.” I thought, “Good for her!” Instead of judging her, let’s applaud her for getting ahead of her to-do list! Again, some people complain about the stress of the holidays, but how many are getting organized in advance? 

Q: It’s no surprise that shopping and gift-giving are high on the list of stressful things about the holidays. Is there any way to ease the pressure around gift-giving?

A: Yes, but you may not like the answer. Large families can draw names, make a rule that only kids receive gifts, create a theme that everyone must shop for (such as movies or books), or put a financial limit on what everyone can spend. I bet you’re already coming up with reasons in your head why none of these will work for your family, right? My point exactly. The answer to creating a less stressful holiday is there, but most people can’t handle the less-is-more approach. 

I’m also giving you permission to ditch this idea: “Well, she bought me something, so I have to reciprocate.” This line of thinking is a slippery slope. You’ll never be able to foresee all the people who will give you a small, unexpected gift. Learn the art of saying “thank you” and keep moving forward with your day. 

Q: Family drama! It’s almost guaranteed to rear its ugly head sometime during the holidays—and often at the worst possible moment. You know it’s going to happen. What can you do to ward off or minimize family drama?

A: Ahh, the million-dollar question! If I knew the answer to this, I would be a million-dollar therapist! All jokes aside, here’s the deal. Your family may never be immune to drama at the holidays, but you can learn not to throw gasoline on it. 

I work with many teenagers in my practice, and we are constantly talking about the drama in their lives. I encourage them not to engage in the drama but to just smile and nod and keep moving. I coach them to say “cool” and move on. This tactic applies with Uncle Larry at the table who wants to criticize what you are (or aren’t) eating. This applies to Aunt Pam who asks the most socially anxious nephew at the table to tell everyone about school. Use all the deflection tactics you know—humor, change the subject, or just smile and nod and say, “You know, Uncle Larry, I’m not sure.” 

On a personal note, another tactic is to share a moment with your partner before the trip, party, or weekend and say something along these lines: “Listen, you know my family gets to me. I need your help this weekend. I don’t want to fight with you, but my family makes me so crazy that I might get agitated with you. I don’t mean it. I need you on my side this weekend, okay? I can’t deal with them and fight with you, so let’s agree to give each other some latitude, okay? And please help me not slap anyone.” This small but powerful conversation can set the tone and strengthen a bond between partners. I promise you this conversation works. I may or may not have used this with my own husband. 

Q: Feelings of loss and sadness are often amplified during the holidays. What can a person do to honor the loss but still manage to find joy and comfort in the holiday season?

A: During your holiday planning, set aside time to honor loved ones who are not present during the holidays. This could include a day you only do things that he or she would have loved. Go out and enjoy what they would have enjoyed and honor them that way. 

If your grief is such that you are not fit for public consumption, choose a quiet activity at home that allows your head and heart ample time to reflect and relive the good memories of that person. Look at photos or videos, read old cards from them, pull out and touch items that were theirs. Give yourself time to process the feelings and emotions you’re having about your loved one. Denying or ignoring these feelings only makes the feelings worse. Grant yourself the time to grieve, process, relive, or remember your connection and love for that person. 

Editor’s Note: The Grant Halliburton Foundation works to strengthen the network of mental health resources for children, teens, and young adults; promote better mental health; and prevent suicide. For more information, go to GrantHalliburton.org

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