General One Change at a Time

One Change at a Time: Dealing with Holiday Stress

Can you believe the holiday season is already here? Halloween is past, and Thanksgiving, December, and New Year’s holidays will be quickly approaching. And, like nearly every year, I am starting to think, “How am I going to be able to get all this stuff done?” The parties, the big meals, family visits, and/or going on family visits. Then there is the gift-giving: who to gift, how much to spend, and, in the case of my husband, what on earth to get him (he is the worst person I know for whom to buy gifts). I love the holiday season, but there are also times every year when I just wish it was over. I think the holidays are like that for most people; they are a wild rollercoaster of joy, fun, and anticipation, alternating with anxiety, stress, and depression. Today, I want to talk about some changes you can consider making the difficult parts of the holiday season a bit easier. I also want to remind everyone, including myself, that asking for help is a good thing, not a bad thing, when the holiday season gets overwhelming.

There are so many things that can affect our emotions in a negative way during the holiday season. Probably the biggest of those is how we set our expectations. During the holidays, we get so bombarded with the “Christmas Card” and social media fantasies of how the holidays are supposed to look—everyone sitting at a table with a big meal and smiles on their faces, a tree piled with expensive and perfectly wrapped gifts. The reality is that I have yet to come across a Christmas card like what so many of us experience. Things like the dog peeing on Aunt Jane’s leg because of all the excitement, the kids complaining that they didn’t get the “latest thing” that they wanted, and the burned meal. Remember that if you compare your holiday to a Hollywood fantasy, you will always be stressed out and disappointed. If you are dreading the normal holiday routine, do something different, like going to a restaurant or getting a meal delivered, and agree to donate to charity as a family rather than stressing over gifts. On the opposite end, don’t assume the holidays are going to be terrible either. That expectation can also make people feel disconnected and depressed. If you are struggling, remember to lean on your support system. You don’t have to be everything for everyone. That is my goal for the holiday season this year. Instead of my normal “do everything myself” for our annual party and the meals, this year I am going to take people up on their offers to bring something or do something to help. Just making that decision has already made me feel lighter. When it comes to your emotional mindset during the holidays, consider volunteering for a holiday charity event like a toy drive or serving meals to the less fortunate. While it can add to an already busy schedule, there is quite a bit of data that shows that people who volunteer during the holidays have less stress, anxiety, and depression.

When it comes to family stressors, think about the people or situations that have caused you stress in the past and try to work around them. There is tremendous value in learning to say “no, thank you”. For instance, staying at one of my sister-in-law’s houses is very stressful for my husband and me. Several years ago, we told her, “It’s too much work for you; we’re going to stay in a hotel.” It was one of the best decisions we ever made! Ask for specific help; if you need someone to make the green bean casserole, don’t tell them, “Bring a side dish.” Be specific with what you need. If you need help with decorating, say, “Can you hang the lights?” That way, you get the help you need and aren’t stressed out because someone did something you didn’t expect. One of the hardest things for me when it comes to family is not worrying about things out of my control. I know so many people who have the same issue. For instance, if you have two family members who always get into a fight and you feel like you must invite both to an event and they do get into a fight, make yourself remember that you cannot control them, but you can control your reaction to them.

The final thing I want to emphasize is that it’s easy to lose track of self-care in the business of the holiday season, yet it’s when things are the most stressful and chaotic that you need to take care of yourself the most. Stay on your normal sleep schedule as much as you can. Sleep is always important, but it is even more so when your stress levels are high. Remember to exercise. Exercise has a very strong anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effect. If time constraints make it hard to get to the gym, consider adding exercise to routine activities like parking further away from entrances so you can walk a bit more and taking stairs instead of elevators whenever possible. Remember to eat sensibly and don’t overload on holiday treats and beverages. If you do falter and eat or drink too much, forgive yourself and move on.

Finally, seeking help isn’t just for physical tasks; it also means seeking help in coping with the stress, anxiety, and depression that can happen not just during the holiday season but at any time. Talk to a trusted friend or loved one, seek professional counseling in your community, or reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 800-662-4357. If you are considering doing something to hurt yourself or someone else, or you are considering suicide, please call 911, go immediately to the closest emergency department, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988.

The holiday season can be a rollercoaster, but with help and planning, you can make the highs outnumber the lows. Don’t be afraid to make choices that allow you to control your stress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN
Chief Nursing Officer
Odessa Regional Medical Center

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