How to survive (and thrive) this holiday season

We look forward to the holidays with wonder and anticipation. However, the coming weeks might also be a tough time for many, triggering the holiday blues – sadness, anxiety, exhaustion and loneliness.

In my work with families, sources of holiday stress largely fall in four main areas: unrealistic expectations, relationship tensions, financial limitations, and increased physical and time demands. The good news is that there are ways to keep the holiday blues at bay, keep your spirits high and enjoy the season.

1. Set realistic expectations.

Christmas2Most people have excessively high expectations that the holidays will be joyful in all respects. When they realize their fantasies haven’t been met, they are left with feelings of disappointment and a depressed mood.

• Being realistic is the first step in reducing undue pressure placed on ourselves.

• Let go of what you don’t have control over and focus your energies on finding a family tradition that is meaningful to you and your family.

• People also tend to put unnecessary stress on themselves by expecting to find the perfect Christmas tree, perfect gifts for everyone on their list, and hosting the perfect holiday party.

• Adopt a positive attitude that does not strive for the unattainable and elusive state of perfection. That “imperfect” tree smells wonderful and is beautifully adorned with the personalized ornaments that your children created with joy and excitement.

• Count life’s blessings. Learn to re-frame holiday challenges and bloopers in a neutral or affirming way.

2. Be honest about your relationship issues. 

The holidays are traditionally a time to celebrate with family and close friends. This can be a source of stress for families that are in the midst of divorce, those who have suffered the recent death of a loved one, are separated due to geographical distance, or for people who have experienced a recent romantic breakup.

• Expecting that pre-existing strained family tensions will magically disappear and be replaced with cheerful holiday gatherings is wishful thinking. Accept the dynamics of your family situation and don’t expect them to change for the holidays.

The loss of a loved one can make the holidays a time of heightened isolation and loneliness. Acknowledge the loss and grief you are feeling but bring that person’s memory into the forefront in a good way, such as making a donation in their honor or volunteering time at one of their favorite charities. Doing for others actually elevates people’s mood.

• Get social. Feeling alone and without an intimate relationship can be difficult over the holidays. Avoid the temptation to go into prolonged periods of isolation and withdrawal that could lead to feeling down and “blue.” Make it a point to reach out to friends and surround yourself with people who care about you.

dr ching presents

3. Remember the true spirit of the season.

People erroneously believe that they are compelled to go out and buy expensive gifts, even if they can’t afford to do so. Knowing your spending limit is a way to avoid financial pressures that can ruin the holiday spirit. Realize that the typical credit card user takes an average of four months to pay off their holiday bills. That doesn’t need to be you.

Be mindful that the true gift is showing you value and care about someone, which doesn’t have a high financial price tag. The holidays are really about connecting with others who are meaningful in your life and sharing in celebration of the season.

Set a budget and stick to it to avoid spending more than you can comfortably afford.

• Change your gift giving habits. Decide if you really do need to buy every person a gift. You may want to restrict gift-giving to children and immediate family.

• Be creative in gift giving. Make handmade gifts with your talents in baking or crafts. Offer a kind deed of thoughtful service to someone. Although my own children are now grown, I still cherish the gift my daughter made in elementary school. It consisted of a packet of coupons she herself made that I could redeem for chores and errands she would do during the year. Priceless!

4. Learn how to say ‘no.’

christmas1Children and adults generally find it a challenge to juggle already packed schedules with a steady stream of holiday events, leading them to potentially become sleep-deprived, physically exhausted and fatigued. Choose instead to promote positive coping to minimize stressors and utilize healthy alternatives to combat stress.

• Saying “no” can be empowering. Select some of the events you want to attend, while letting go of others. There is no rule that you have to accept every invitation extended to you. Your primary obligation is to keep yourself healthy.

• Slow it down. Prioritize your to-do list of activities over the holidays and leave less immediate tasks for a later time. Focus on experiencing and living in the moment, in a full and balanced way. By recharging your batteries, you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals.

• Reach out and ask for help frequently. You don’t have to do it all on your own.

• Malama your body, mind, and spirit. It may be tempting to be everything to everyone. Nevertheless, self-care is a priority. Find the time to keep up with your exercise, eat healthy, rest and laugh in abundance. Being in Hawaii, let nature fill your senses.

• Avoid the temptation to consume excess food or alcohol as the primary way to de-stress. Moderation is the key.

• Keep a semblance of routine for you and your family. Having some structure during the holidays provides a sense of order and control during this busy season.

As you can see, there are ways to keep the holiday blues at bay. Remember to prioritize, work on your mood, promote positive coping, and use healthy alternatives. Wishing you peace, health and cherished moments throughout the holiday season.

ChingJune W. J. Ching, Ph.D., ABPP is a Board Certified clinical psychologist who practices in Honolulu. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. She is past-president of the Hawaii Psychological Association and former chief psychologist at Kapiolani Medical Center for women and children. Ching received her master’s degree from Harvard University and her doctoral degree from Northwestern University. She holds a clinical affiliate faculty appointment at the University of Hawaii’s Clinical Studies Program.

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