Psychologist Ronald Nathan shares tips from his self-help CD "Relieving Your Holiday Stress and Achieving Your New Year's Resolutions."
Snarled traffic, crushing crowds, long cashier lines, sold-out toys, tangled strings of broken lights, children screaming, houses not ready for guests, feuding families-'tis the season. So what can we do about all the stress of the holidays?
1) Planning is the first step
Recall your worst moments during past holidays and realistically plan what you want to do and how you will get it done. If anything, underestimate how much you can do and then plan to do the things that truly bring you joy.
For example, you might decide to write fewer cards this year, or write a couple of cards each day until the holiday. This way you can avoid doing them at the last minute and losing sleep, just when you will need your rest the most. In general, permit yourself to postpone whatever can wait until after the holidays.
2) Decrease financial and social stress
Avoid making comparisons and focus on what we feel is important. How much is enough when it comes to gifts? Research suggests that children request only three or four of the 11 or 12 gifts they receive during the holidays. This excess raises their expectations and commercializes the holidays.
If you can't get the toy-of-the-year, such as Tickle Me Elmo, or The Cabbage Patch Doll, consider options such as having Santa place an IOU gift certificate under the tree, assuming you are maintaining the magic of St. Nick.
Is the gift beyond your budget? This can be an opportunity to help your child understand the difference between a need and a want. If complaints arise about other children's good fortune, you can explain that Santa's stock is depleted or that some people are able to pay for extra elves. If your child has prayed for the gift, it may be your chance to talk about how an unanswered prayer is usually not a denial, but just a delay. It may also be a good time to emphasize the virtues of patience and hope in the face of disappointment.
For an older child, ways of earning and saving for it during the new year can be discussed. When you learn of unmet desires, you may want to develop a wish file that your child can fill. This can help your child to feel more actively involved and you can use it to look for gifts that might be on sale before an upcoming birthday. Still another way of reducing the financial and decision stress of buying the right gifts for everyone, is to ask family members to pick one name out of a hat and focus their efforts on the unique interests of that one recipient.
A spirited way of avoiding big bills is to plan inexpensive activities like caroling, reading holiday stories, or volunteering at shelters and hospitals. These can be a cost-containing way to find the joy in giving and experience what has been called the helper's high. Researchers have found this to be much like the runner's high—a wonderfully relaxing sense of well being. Another inexpensive group activity is to pass out blank cards and ask everyone to write down anonymously what they are most thankful for and then read them out loud.
When you arrive at a store, you can help ease the stress by thinking: "There is no perfect gift; I'm going to have fun picking out something they'll probably enjoy getting and if they don't like it, they can always return it," instead of thinking that you have to find the perfect gift.
A hike around the mall can also do wonders for you because exercise is one of nature's best tranquilizers and mood lifters. If you take the attitude that walking through the mall and to your car is good exercise and you are properly dressed for the weather, you can stop frantically searching for the closest parking space and lower your overall level of frustration.
4) Don't overdo it
If you are feeling overwhelmed with too much to do in too little time, it helps to create a list of only the most important things to do. Avoid saying, "There's too much to do, I'll never get it done." Instead, say rather, "I'll make list of the most important things and get started."
If you feel overwhelmed, stop and do something for yourself that calms you. Read a book or take a bath.
Don't get stuck doing everything yourself while suffering in silence and stockpiling anger. Avoid becoming a "Type E" and trying to do Everything for Everyone. Instead, speak up and get everyone pitching in together to help out. If you delegate, teach and follow-up with an eye toward what each member can do best, they'll enjoy the pride of feeling useful, and be willing and able to contribute for many years to come.
To help you to keep many of these suggestions in mind, I'd like to share with you two rules for holiday stress.
Rule 1: Don't sweat the small stuff.
Rule 2: It's all small stuff. If you can't fight and you can't flee, then relax and flow.
5) Make peace
When families get together, they need to be realistic and expect some conflict; some friction along with the warmth. Real families are not exactly the Brady Bunch or the Waltons. The forced togetherness of the holidays can easily lead to arguments.
What can you do about it? If you want peace, you must respond peacefully. It's a time for yielding rather than standing your ground.
6) Party pointers
When planning a party, remember it is not the host's responsibility for everyone to have fun. The goal is to provide a setting that would encourage guests to have a good time and make it more likely that they will. Hosts can't actually make anyone have fun.
Don't try to give the perfect party-give a friendly one. Your feelings are contagious, so relax and enjoy your company. Your guests would rather have a relaxed hostess than an extra cheese ball. If you like hosting holiday parties but always feel overwhelmed, have each guest bring something. This way, you can enjoy the company without having to do all the work.
If you are hosting a dinner with more than six guests and you have invited more than one Scrooge, you might consider carefully separating them with place cards. Distance is a great buffer to conflict. This approach is a far better than hiring a bouncer to remove anyone who threatens to ruin the holiday gathering. If possible, seat the children with the grown-ups. This usually brings out the best behavior and gives children a chance to become better acquainted with their relatives.
If a guest is truly disruptive, ask the person to help you in the kitchen. Then ask the person a good question, such as, "Humor me-what's really going on?" Once the problem is aired, understanding can be communicated, and solutions sought. Remember, the pain a person causes others is usually in direct proportion to their own pain. Our tolerance and compassion can make a big difference.
Many times, we get too serious about our holidays. Aren't some of our most memorable moments, the least expected situation comedies of our lives? Laughing at ourselves is one of the best ways of managing stress. Humor puts things into perspective, as we join with others in laughing and relaxing.
7) Make time for spiritual needs
With all the other things you plan, it is most important to leave time and energy for your spiritual needs. If we don't attend to our spiritual dimension during religious holidays, we have to ask when we will ever make the time to do so and whether our busyness is a vain attempt to fill an abiding emptiness that only God can fill. Whether you talk to God through prayer or listen to God through meditation, alone or with others, plan time for your spiritual needs. Holidays are a time for friends, family, and faith.