Holiday Stress

Carmen Omania, M.S.

For many, we tend to package our expectations of family love into the holidays: to be perfect and full of familial love, harmony, and connection. We go to great trouble for the season's slew of holidays -- Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and of course, Christmas - precisely because our expectations are so heavily tinseled.

With this in mind, issues that were in hibernation are apt to surface. One can slide into old familiar roles as if they'd never left home, such as sibling rivalry. Who was the good kid? Who was Mom or Dad's favorite? One sibling may help Mom clear the dishes while the other sits and watches football with Dad and the resentment continues.

We want the gift giving and receiving satisfaction we had as children. Therefore, we torture ourselves to find the perfect gift for our loved ones, yet may feel disappointed if we don't get the reaction we expected, or if we don't receive a gift of equivalent value. Feelings could be hurt if loved ones give you clothes, but don't even know your size. Or if they give your sibling a more expensive gift than yours.

These are just a few examples of the impact the holidays can have on your psyche. The following are some tips to reduce stress and survive the holidays.

  • Expect the intensity of holiday togetherness to breed some irritability and take it in stride. There's no such thing as a perfect family.
  • Recognize that no one can live up to our expectations of Christmas. Most of us carry around a romanticized picture of the holiday and feel we must relentlessly convey warmth, brightness and good feeling. It's just not possible without creating tension.
  • Give yourself and everyone else permission to feel less than perfect. Recognize that the holiday isn't "ruined" just because someone gets angry or upset; your family is simply doing what it's always done - acting like your family.
  • Be aware that family rituals attempt to stuff you back into old family roles; you don't have to be the mediator or kid sister if you don't want to be.
  • Plan for the difficult moments. Propose playing a board game, watching a movie, or going on a family outing for the Christmas afternoon slump.
  • Ask others for help if you are the one in charge of organizing the holiday reunion. Unburden yourself and assign specific tasks to people.
  • Take care of yourself. If you feel stressed, give yourself a time-out to let loose. Try calling a friend, taking a walk, or writing in a journal.

Tips to reduce and survive the holiday gift giving tension on our psyches and pocketbooks:

  • Set the limits. Cap the number of gifts one person can give to another, limit the amount of money that can be spent per present, or pick names out of a hat: each person buys a gift only for the person on the slip.
  • Prepare a list of what each family member wants, along with their sizes. Pool money to purchase one big gift for each person.
  • Shop early. Pick up a present when something catches your eye as right for a person, and put it away in the closet till Christmas.
  • Use your imagination. Arrange for theater tickets, a special day's outing (a lunch date, perhaps) or make gifts to give such as ornaments or candles.

And when all else fails, simply grin and bear it. Remember, Christmas is but one day - and you've got 365 days until next year's giving go-round.

If you are having problems coping with holiday stress, call Counseling Services (256-782-5475) for more information, or to schedule an appointment.

Courtesy of California State University, Hayward