Even though Los Angeles is as sunny as ever, the winter holidays are, in fact, upon us. This time of year, my social media feeds and inboxes are littered with articles on how to get through the holidays. “How to Survive the Holidays.” “Tips and Tricks to Beat Holiday Stress.” “How to Talk Politics (Or Not) At Thanksgiving Dinner.” These articles are not unwelcome, and there’s so many of them for a reason. The interruptions to our normal routines that the holidays bring – like taking time off from work, shouldering the extra financial burden of gift-giving or travel, managing your own dietary restrictions or preferences (or those of family and friends), and all the mixed emotions that can come up about spending time with family (especially when our politics are not shared) – can be particularly stressful.
Besides looking for extra ways to engage in self-care at this time of year – like getting enough sleep and continuing our regular routines of moderate exercise and/or meditation – what else can we do to cope?
Often, when we feel stressed, it emerges in unspecific ways, like low energy levels or irritability. Sometimes we don’t know where it’s coming from. So try to assess what’s causing you the most anxiety. Is it tackling Thanksgiving traffic? Or are you most afraid of being cornered by Uncle Bob to talk about conspiracy theories? Once you pinpoint the biggest source of your worries, validate those feelings. Sometimes acknowledging that something is difficult or stressful helps empower us to actually face it. Also, it gives you the opportunity to be kind to yourself instead of pretending that your feelings aren’t there, or worse yet, that you shouldn’t be feeling them. Then, make a targeted action plan, and give yourself permission to get creative about your own needs. If it’s traffic that’s stressful, is it possible to fly? If you’re in charge of cooking the meal and you’re feeling overwhelmed, can you delegate by making the dinner a potluck?
Next, don’t expect a Hallmark holiday – but don’t prepare for World War III, either. When expectations are too high, they often lead to disappointment, and when they’re too low, sometimes they make us miss opportunities to really appreciate what we have. I know for me, time off with my family means that I’m taking time off of work, and I have expectations that I’m really going to connect with my family and we’re going to have a lovely time. Some people dread time off with their family, because they expect it to not go well.
Just as it can be helpful to pinpoint the source of stress, it can also be helpful to articulate what our expectations are, and try to manage them in advance. Make a list of hopes and fears. If you think your expectations might be too high, call them hopes instead (“I hope to connect individually with everyone this year. I only get to see my parents a couple times a year, and I hope this year is really special. But I know they’re hosting, so if the holiday ends up being too hectic, I’ll understand.”), and call low expectations fears (“I’m afraid that my brother’s new girlfriend will be the only topic of conversation at the table, and I’ll be ignored, as usual. Maybe instead of waiting to be asked about what I’ve been up to, I can just plan on some things to preemptively share about my life without being asked.”). Understanding our own motivations in advance will help us to respond in the moment to what is actually happening, rather than what we anticipated or dreaded.
Lastly, whether you’re spending the entire 4-day weekend with your family or just Thanksgiving day, think of it as a marathon rather than a sprint. Take breaks to be alone, or to recharge with friends or a partner. Remember that all long-term relationships are challenging, not just romantic ones, and that your family members are probably experiencing their own challenges around the holidays, just as you are. Approach it as a team effort rather than a solo mission. And in the midst of all the things that might be challenging, actively find things to appreciate. After all, this holiday’s about gratitude, right?