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Handling Holiday Stress

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  Or is it?  While many people enjoy the holidays, they are a source of stress, strain, and worry for others.  More than half of people with mental illness report that the holidays exacerbate their conditions.  In fact, more than 40% of people report that the holidays cause them some stress, with almost 20% of people considering it extreme stress.  Learning how to reduce or manage that holiday stress is important for all people, but especially for people who struggle with mental health or who are in recovery.

These stressors have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  While we have been told that we can expect a more normal holiday season in 2021, the fact is that holiday gatherings still need modifications in order to be safe from COVID-19.  These extra precautions can add stress but failing to observe them can also be stressful.

Here are some tips to reduce stress this holiday season.

  1. Stay safe.  Whether we are talking about taking steps to avoid COVID-19, avoiding dangerous situations, or staying off the roads when most drivers are likely to be intoxicated, knowing that you are protecting your personal safety can go a long way to reducing your stress.
  2. Set boundaries.  Many of us struggle to put appropriate boundaries in place with friends and family.  Do not be afraid to tell people where your boundaries are and to enforce them if they are violated.  You may need to prepare beforehand to be able to enforce those boundaries.  This can mean having your own means of transportation or staying at a hotel instead of in a family home.
  3. Be realistic.  Life is not a TV movie.  No one has idyllic family holidays.  Even really functional and loving families have challenges.  So, be realistic about your plans.  What do you want to happen?  What is likely to actually happen?  What can you do to bridge the gap between what you want and what is likely to happen?
  4. Manage expectations.  People have very high expectations for the holidays.  Some of those expectations are financial.  People may ask you for gifts that you cannot afford.  You may want gifts that are too expensive.  However, expectations are not always financial. You may be expected to appear at different events that are occurring at the same time.  You may be asked to do favors for people that do not fit your schedule.  Be clear about what people can expect from you.
  5. Think about your needs.  If you have been struggling, you need to make sure you keep your emotional, mental, and physical health in mind.  What do you need to stay healthy?  If exercise, sleep, and a routine are tools you use to help yourself cope, do not abandon them for the holidays.
  6. Ask yourself if you really need to see stressful people.  Some family members are annoying, but other family members are downright toxic.  You do not owe toxic people your time.  If you are dreading seeing a particular person, ask yourself if you really need to see them.  Often, the answer is no.