We Asked A Mental Health Pro How To Overcome Our Biggest Holiday Stressors
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We Asked A Mental Health Pro How To Overcome Our Biggest Holiday Stressors

While it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s stress is different, but we do see common patterns over the holidays. We might feel pressure to maintain traditions and add in new things. We might fear we’ll miss a moment or ruin something that only happens once a year. Many of us often strain our spending with gifts and travel this time of year. Other big stressors include professional pressure to hit fourth quarter deadlines at work, planning events, gatherings or travel, and feeling a need to manage family members.

There’s a lot going on with the holidays. No wonder they can be hard!

But ultimately, this season is about relationships. Keep that as your North Star. It’s easy to make things complex and add more and more every year, but it’s an incredible skill to be able to simplify. If you add something, eliminate something else. Look for ways to create smaller, less extravagant rituals. Focus. And define what’s special for you. It’s not about who you’re trying to please or avoid upsetting. It’s about what you want and what’s special for you and yours.

Let’s start with money. Financial stress is high during the holidays! How can we manage expectations with family members and themselves around spending?

In terms of gifts, it helps to be up-front about spending limits–and this doesn’t have to be just for group gift exchanges. (Though drawing names can be far less stressful than getting small gifts for everyone in a group.) You can set budget ranges with partners, kids, siblings, parents, and friends.

You may be surprised that you can make staying on a budget fun. People don’t need expensive gifts–often the best gifts and the ones that people remember most are thoughtful and inexpensive.  Maybe you and your brother go to a pottery class and make something for each other or for a parent. Maybe you make a photo collage or print (yes, print on paper!) pictures and find frames at a thrift store.

Another option is to eschew gifts entirely and go for donations instead. Every person in your family could select a charity they care about and, in lieu of gifts, collect donations. Each of you could set a fundraising goal (even if it’s modest) and when that goal is met, that person is “done.” Even if you didn’t give your mom her gift, if her fundraising goal is met, she’s set. Your money then goes toward someone else’s charity.

“Look for ways to create smaller, less extravagant rituals. Focus. And define what’s special for you.”

Spending time with family members who are a mental and emotional strain is also common around the holidays. What’s your advice for sharing spaces with relatives who you don’t get along with?

Aim for short visits rather than long days with these relatives. Keep in mind that these are your holidays, too, so you have a say in scheduling your time.  Going into the situation, try to think of a few conversation topics beforehand–so when the conversation veers off course, you’re ready to steer it in another direction. Setting boundaries is also essential. You can plan activities, like going for a walk, that get you out of the house for much-needed breaks. Exercise is a double-whammy because it offers a break and it helps reduce your stress.

And if it’s at all possible, try to have compassion for these family members. A good way to start is by trying to find one thing you like or find interesting about that person. This helps focus the brain on finding something good rather than bad. We’re messy humans and we have to remember that everyone has their own story.

What types of conversations with relatives should you try to avoid? What are some tactics to use when dealing with an instigative relative?

From the get-go, set expectations about what won’t be discussed. What is off-limits? It’s different for every group. Maybe it’s ex-relationships or politics or why you’re not married yet. It helps when a few people share expectations of appropriate conversation topics. because it’s harder for an instigator to gain traction if nobody responds or participates. If gossip, sniping, and touchy topics still come up, there’s always distraction: “Come help me with the hot chocolate!” or whatever it might be.

What about engaging with toxic relationships with childhood friends? How do you decide whether or not to make time for friends who you have a great deal of history with over the holidays?

One of the best things about being an adult is that you get to define family. You can choose to make it a family first holiday, even if that’s your cat and the UPS driver. We all have limited time during this season, so it’s a great strength to be able to focus and prioritize the people you really care about. If they haven’t been a great friend, why would you not use your precious time on someone who is? You need to set boundaries. It’s how we grow and define the people we want to be.

“Keep in mind that these are your holidays, too, so you have a say in scheduling your time.”

For those who have social anxiety, what are some things to keep in mind when attending holiday parties and gatherings?

Consider volunteering for roles that are not high-visibility prep tasks. You can volunteer to do the clean-up or run to the store for those last few forgotten items. You should also feel comfortable stepping outside for a few minutes to “get some air” or walk around the block–people will understand.

If you’re throwing a party, keep in mind that people have different social needs. You may choose to turn the volume down once people arrive or spread the party over several rooms so that folks can exit without being noticed.  Try to make a place for loud and fun rowdy extroverts–maybe it’s the back porch, the yard, or a game room in the basement.

The holidays are also a common time for people to be laid off from their jobs. If you’re worried about job security, or have been laid off, how can you stay calm in the face of such a difficult time? How do you talk to friends and family members about it?

In the face of worry, taking action can often calm us. When we ruminate, it can increase our anxiety, so create a plan of action. In my decade of experience working with businesses, I’ve noticed that HR doesn’t often make a lot of hiring decisions over the holidays. So, use the time to meet new people, develop your elevator speech, network, and update your resume.

If you’ve been laid off, reach out to others for advice and help to make new connections. In difficult situations, people often want to help, but don’t always know what to do. So ask for connections and networks and see where it leads.  If you have a family member or friend who has been laid off, avoid bringing it up in group settings; it’s best to let them take the lead on that conversation.

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