The holidays are like the Olympics for psychologists. There is no shortage of rich material to talk about in therapy the weeks after Thanksgiving and Christmas. Real-life seldom reads like a Hallmark movie script. For many people, the holidays don’t feel happy, merry, or bright. Instead, the final weeks of the year can seem quite difficult as a perfect storm of family, food, booze, grief, and financial strain combine to create seasonal stress.
While some people look forward to time with loved ones this time of year, others dread sharing space with people they never voted to have in their life in the first place. When people are with family they frequently become former versions of themselves. Everyone unconsciously is pulled into old, familiar roles. Parents may sometimes interact with adult children like they’re teenagers instead of accomplished, individuated adults. Siblings still experience twinges of rivalry. Everyone is under stress, and the whole group tends to regress.
Holiday gatherings can be a time of unsolicited commentary on personal, often sensitive, subjects. Think fertility, food choices, appearance, parenting philosophies, etc. Even when well-intentioned, comments from family members can be deeply hurtful.
Food & Alcohol.
Holidays are often food- and alcohol-centric events. For people who have a complicated relationship with food and weight, attending events that revolve around eating can be a source of stress. Special seasonal foods are meant to be pleasurable and nostalgic, but sometimes holiday eating is fraught with anxiety and shame. The architecture of the food environment in homes often changes from November to January. Increased access and availability of highly-palatable foods for individuals who struggle to moderate their intake can make this time of year challenging.
In most circles, alcohol flows freely during the holidays. Often people feel pressure to drink during this time of year simply because the people around them are doing the same thing. People don’t want to face the question, “Why aren’t you drinking?” because they may fear judgment or not fitting in. Alcohol can be particularly problematic during the holiday for individuals battling addiction. Parties and other holiday functions where drinking is the norm create trigger-rich environments where it is difficult to say “no” and easy to overdo it.
Drinking is a strategy many people use to cope and is a popular way to self-medicate holiday stress. Unfortunately, it usually creates or exacerbates problems instead of providing a solid solution. Alcohol is a liquid depressant and lowers inhibition. It has a negative impact on mood and impairs decision-making.
Holidays remind us of the empty chairs at our tables. The first holidays without loved ones can be particularly hard. Holidays often don’t taste, look, or feel the same when they aren’t shared with everyone we are accustomed to making memories with. Every decoration, song, and recipe can serve as a painful reminder of who is not there.
Financial stress – Gift-giving is an experience steeped in expectation, obligation, and pressure for many people. Lots of families have unspoken rules about exchanging presents that don’t account for individual preferences or financial circumstances. Talking about money honestly and directly is difficult for most people any time of year. They are often even more reticent to admit that they can’t afford something during the holidays because they don’t want to be a “downer” or broach a difficult conversation during a season of celebration. Extra expenses from gifts, events, and travel can add up quickly. These expenditures create financial angst and trigger emotional experiences that often accompany being short-changed—shame and anxiety.
How can you set yourself up for holiday success? There are a few simple, strategic strategies you can keep top of mind as we close out the bottom half of the year that may prove to be the gifts that keep on giving in the days and weeks ahead.
Eat. Sleep. Move.
Food, substances, sleep, and exercise have a significant impact on our ability to manage our emotions and respond to stress. Bring intention to your food intake, alcohol consumption, sleep, and exercise. Make a mental checklist: eat, sleep, move. Stay connected to the agency and control you have in each of these seemingly small but powerful areas. Ultimately, it is up to you what you choose to swallow and when you put yourself to bed, regardless of what day it is on the calendar. Remember: eat, drink, and be merry. Don’t eat, drink to be merry.
The holidays are rife with opportunities to sharpen your interpersonal skills and exercise your EQ by setting boundaries with the people around you. Anticipate challenging exchanges. You may find it beneficial to pre-plan or even practice your responses. Develop exit strategies—these can be conversational and/or physical
People will project their “stuff” onto you. You can’t stop it, but you always get to choose how you will respond. It’s easier for humans to focus on imperfections in others than it is to look in the mirror. If someone says something emotionally activating, don’t personalize what is not actually about you.
When people make comments that are critical, remind yourself that have nothing to defend to anyone about your life choices. This rule applies to everything from what you put on your plate to the number of kids you have seated at the children’s table.
Avoid making decisions motivated by guilt or obligation. If either of these psychological states is driving a decision, it is a sign that you have an opportunity to set a different boundary. You get to decide what is best for you and your family. “No” without apology is an acceptable one-word sentence.
Be judicious in how you are budgeting your time, money, and energy this holiday season. Only you know how much you have. Decide how you want to prioritize expenditures in each of these areas carefully. When you’re tempted to overextend, remember that you will ultimately be the one facing the pain and consequences when the check bounces.
Make Choices Your Future Self Will Thank You For.
As you face your menu of choices this holiday season, take a tactical pause. Instead of automatically indulging your present self, give your future self a gift instead. Ask, “How will this choice impact me when the New Year rolls around?” Don’t wait for January 1st—start doing the next best thing right now.
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