Articles by Patricia Velkoff, PhD
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Help Through the Holidays

We have all known a few blessed individuals who handle the holiday season with vigor and joy.  A much more common experience is a progressive increase of stress which leaves many of us confused, depressed, and angry by the end of the year.  By recognizing the types of stress which accompany the holidays, we may be able to handle our commitments with more of the spirit we admire in others. 

There are two major types of holiday stress.  The first is TIME STRESS: we scramble to meet obligations, overcommit ourselves, run from one requirement to another, our schedules filled to the breaking point.  There are endless trips to the mall, post office, Santa, photographer, grocery store, school parties, office parties, neighborhood parties.  Lists are long.  Sleep is short.  There just isn’t enough time.

A second form of holiday stress is RELATIONSHIP STRESS: we experience our relationships (relatives, colleagues, and friends) as disappointing.  They leave us angry, unhappy and depleted.  A visit from grandparents, so happily awaited by our children, is dreaded by us and our spouse.  During vacation time, we find ourselves all together wondering why we are so tense and irritable.  Family members find themselves wishing that last year’s problems weren’t being played out yet again this year, or that we could just have a few moments of privacy.  Tempers flair. There are arguments behind closed doors.  We feel exhausted and unhappy by the end of each long day. 

Taken together, Time Stress and Relationship Stress make it enormously difficult for many of us to enjoy the holiday season.  Eventually, every new invitation to a “fun” holiday event feels like just one more unwanted obligation, fraught with problems.  The magazine covers in the supermarket checkout line--so cheery with handmade ornaments and mothers in aprons making cookies with smiling children--only contribute to the problem by creating an image of the life we feel we are supposed to be living.  Once out of the market, real life sets in again and we are left with more list making, more family obligations, and sometimes exhaustion and depression. 
The holidays do not have to be quite so difficult.

HANDLING TIME STRESS

Recognize we are making choices about how to spend our time.  It is worth carefully deciding whether each activity or commitment is essential or voluntary.  Tasks that are essential need to be managed with as much grace as we can muster.  However, many stresses are voluntary and self-imposed.  These are obligations to which we can say “no” or “later” or “I will do half if you will do half.”  (To gain a little perspective, we might ask ourselves “what is the worst  that will happen if I don’t bake cookies for the school party, or take my preschooler to breakfast with Santa, or mail that package by tomorrow.  The consequences are rarely extreme or disastrous.)  Before accepting voluntary obligations, it is worth assessing the costs of the commitment versus the benefits.  We may be able to eliminate some activities.  For the activities we choose, we may suffer some inconveniences more gracefully knowing we are responsible for accepting them. 

Get help.  As part of deciding what we personally can and cannot handle, it is useful to identify when we need help and where to find it.  Your five-year-old hates shopping and could be left with a babysitter while you do errands.  You hate to cook and could purchase a snack for the Boy Scouts’ Christmas party.  If volunteering to set up refreshments for the school party was too much last year, volunteer this year to be part of a committee or don’t volunteer at all.  If a day-long open house was too much to prepare last year, hire a caterer or organize a pot luck dessert exchange.  Hiring more babysitters, getting temporary housecleaning help, and ordering pizza can all be useful temporary measures to make the holidays more sane and manageable. 

Coordinate closely with family members.  Managing the schedule of a busy family can be challenging at any time of year.  It can be a nightmare during the holidays.  With limited hours in the day and limited cars to transport everyone, conflicts of schedule often arise.  It is useful to have a written family calendar, regular family meetings (formal or informal), and flexibility in meeting the needs of all family members.   

Do some advance planning.  The shift from highly organized time to free time is often enormously disconcerting.  We start vacation glad we will finally have more time with our spouse and children, and quickly change to wishing we could escape back to work.  A few well planned activities early in a vacation (making cards together, sledding at the local park, building snowmen) can build a bridge from our usual highly organized schedule to the less organized time of the vacation.  Planning can also be helpful before visits to relatives.  It is often useful to set a few goals for these visits such as finding out more about family history, addressing an unresolved conflict with a sibling, or spending time with a particular niece or nephew. Whatever disappointments or difficulties arise, we can come away with the knowledge we accomplished a few things that were most important to us. 

HANDLING RELATIONSHIP STRESS

Attend to stress in relationships.  The first step in handling Relationship Stress is noticing how and when it exists.  Only after we have recognized the problem can we approach solving it. 

For example, if you dread the annual visit from extended family, admit it and try to come to grips with what makes it stressful.  Is it their high need for entertainment?  Is it their criticism of your parenting?  Is it the pressure of entertaining and feeding them?  Is it the difficulty of getting other family members to share the additional responsibilities?  Is it that your parents continue to treat you as a wayward adolescent, despite your advancing years and respected profession?  Whatever the reasons for these stresses, it is only after they have been identified that we can begin to approach them constructively to reduce stress. 

Identify the biggest stressors from previous years and try to find ways to avoid repeating them or to handle them differently.   Many holiday stresses repeat themselves from year to year, and we often have great difficulty breaking the cycle.  It is worth making a list of the stresses that are annual events:  arranging time to visit step-parents; the fights between our children and their cousins; the teenager who doesn’t want to do anything with the family; the child who becomes increasingly unruly as the day wears on.  We can often develop methods to reduce these difficulties or mange them better once we know what they are.  Our spouse and other family members are often good resources and helpers in avoiding or managing potential problems.  They can be enlisted for moral support as well as practical help.  Knowing what has not worked in the past is the first step to creating a better solution. 

Know yourself and your own family.  Some families thrive on variety and activity.  Others prefer a slower, less hurried pace.  Some families spend plenty of time together.  Others enjoy separate interests.  Individual members of families differ in their needs and preferences, too, and these can change over time.  Holiday planning is often most nourishing to everyone when it moves away from the expectations of how holidays should  be spent and focuses instead on what our particular family would enjoy during this particular year.  What fun holidays do each of us remember?  What made them fun?  How can we eliminate the worst from previous years?  Events can be planned (or dropped) as they fit our specific family, and during this specific holiday season. 

Think about the holidays before they begin.  It is useful to think about what we want during the holidays either well before they begin or when we have just come out of the rush and can state quite clearly what did and did not work.  With some distance, we can better evaluate what we want the holidays to be and how to achieve that.  For most of us, this is a significant challenge.  Managing the trivia of shopping, errands, and commitments is concrete.  We make lists, check things off, make new lists.  It seems as though we are getting somewhere. 

Coming to grips with the bigger picture of the holiday is much more difficult.  What does the holiday season mean to us?  What is worth doing?  What in our handling of the holidays is music and what is just noise?  These questions cannot be answered in five minutes, or with a quick run to the shopping mall.   They require that we come to terms with ourselves, who we are and what our life is about.  Once these broader questions are answered, holiday choices are simpler, and the results are more fulfilling than when we rush through endless errands and commitments. 

There is no magic to having an enjoyable holiday.  Some stress is virtually inevitable for most of us.  Those who get through this time with a measure of relaxation and enjoyment usually do so by drawing on a combination of realism, good planning, a willingness to say “no,” and a sense of humor.