Holiday Stress: A Short Cheat Sheet

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Sometimes the best way to deal with holiday stress is to confront it head on.  As soon as Labor Day ends, the holiday machine swings into action, and many people find themselves without a plan to deal with the stress brought on by axis of holiday evil: relatives, food, and shopping. 

Childhood memories about the holidays can be a wonderful, nostalgic trip, but for many people they are also land mines.   Take the gift giving experience at Christmas for example.  As a child, there is an expectation that you are the center of attention, and a net “benefactor” of the gifting experience.  That is to say that most children get more than they give.  Over time, this dynamic shifts; every parent wants to indulge their children’s fantasies during the holidays.  But that doesn’t mean that as adults we shed our expectations of being spoiled.  And this latent desire to be the center of it all can lead to sadness and emptiness.

How Stress Is Triggered

During the holidays, the environment changes dramatically.  Neutral shop displays become tinsel forests.  Shopping centers are festooned with boughs of green conifers.  Lights are strung from street lamps, telephone poles, and public monuments.  But perhaps the most drastic change is in our aural environment:  holiday music hijacks the airwaves.  And mixed in with all that holiday cheer is public stress agent number one: the sad song.

 Hearing a song lamenting the loss of love or not being with a loved one during the holidays can turn a neutral emotion into a sad one, and a sad one into an unbearably sad experience.  And the worst part is that most people are completely at the mercy of this aural bombardment.  Not only is the volume turned up just about everywhere, but sad songs can pop-up seemingly everywhere: the grocery store, the dentist, and even stores with an upbeat vibe.

Loneliness and Depression

In Prince’s famously sad Another Lonely Christmas, he drowns his loneliness by drinking banana daiquiris “til he’s blind.”  During the holidays, loneliness becomes an intensely personal concept: even someone who enjoyed Prince’s fame and popularity can feel lonely.  In the same vein, people who live in big cities and who are surrounded by people can feel their loneliness intensified by seeing seemingly happy people all around them. 

Sinking into a state of loneliness can trigger holiday depression.  It is crucial to acknowledge the sadness and grief that can accompany depression.  Admitting that you are sad and welcoming therapeutic crying can be cleansing and reconnect you with positive emotions.  If crying is not possible, then one technique to consider is to recalibrate the most intense emotion you are experience, say sadness, and focus on the attendant anger or ___________ that accompany that feeling.  This is a way to broaden one’s emotional experience, and can provide insight and relief to holiday-related depression.

Best Way to Deal With Stress

Just as holiday loneliness and depression affects everyone differently, dealing with these potential problems always takes on an individual twist, although there are some broad guidelines that can be followed.

Understanding how changing family patterns and personal circumstances relate to one’s expectations about the holidays can establish a healthier connection to the season and inhibit the sense of alienation and unfulfilled expectations that creep in quickly after summer ends.  It might also be worth considering having pre-emptive discussions with family and friends about what their expectations are for the holidays.  The burdens of shopping, cooking, and cleaning can be apportioned fairly in advance to avoid having one person feeling overwhelmed and taken advantage of. 

Finally, it is important to maintain healthy habits relating to diet, exercise, and socializing during the holidays.  Even though the sights and sounds of the holiday signify that everything should change, it is vital to be energetic, vibrant, and connected to feel good about yourself and your loved ones.

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