For many of us, the holidays are stressful. Our stress might stem from having a narrow, rigid view of how the holidays are supposed to be, said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco.
We might feel pressure, from ourselves and others, to have a joyful holiday. But we might not feel particularly joyful, or at least not all the time if our family isn’t close by or our relationship is complex, she said.
In fact, it’s not uncommon when you’re spending time with your family to “find yourself catapulted back in time, taking on roles and participating in dynamics that you may have believed you’d left behind,” Shinraku said.
This can lead you to judge yourself for getting pulled into old patterns or your family for pulling you in, she said.
Stress also might arise from perceived or actual pressure to buy lots of gifts to fit in or make others happy, Shinraku said. If you feel uncomfortable about the commercialization of the holidays or you don’t have the resources, you might feel out of step with others or worry about being enough, she said.
Plus, as the year winds down, you might be trying to reconcile the hope you had when the year began with what actually occurred, she said.
So how can you approach the holiday season? These six tips might help.
1. Acknowledge your feelings.
“Bring awareness to your experience and let your fullest range of feelings register,” Shinraku said. In other words, acknowledge how you’re feeling — whether that’s overwhelmed, sad or joyful — and let yourself feel those feelings.
“Trying to deny certain feelings and amplify others can compound stress and leave you feeling disconnected from yourself and others.”
Whatever you are feeling is normal, she said. “Just because it’s the holidays, doesn’t mean you should feel happy all the time. And just because you feel sad or lonely, doesn’t mean that you don’t also feel a sense of gratitude and wonder at times.”
Make room for all of your feelings and reactions, Shinraku said, as best as you can.
2. Practice acceptance.
Again, the holidays become stressful when we fixate on what they should look like, said Ashley Eder, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo. We might think that everyone should get along, the food should turn out perfect, and the roads should be traffic-free.
When these things don’t happen, we not only get upset, but we also miss out on what’s actually happening, she said. This might include: “the people we do enjoy spending time with, the foods that did turn out just how we like them, and the great music and company we had while riding in the car.”
Notice when you’re using “should,” Eder said. Then focus on accepting how things actually are. This “could be as simple as ‘I wanted everyone to get along, but there is some bickering. There are also some folks relaxed and enjoying themselves. All of that is true right now.’”
When you accept something, Eder clarified, it doesn’t mean you’re thrilled about it. “Acceptance just means acknowledging that it’s actually what’s here, instead of pretending otherwise or over-focusing on what you wish were different.” It’s OK to be disappointed, bored or angry, she said.
3. Be self-compassionate.
Being kind to yourself can mean many things, Shinraku said. She shared these examples:
- Carving out alone time to “stay connected to your adult self when family dynamics seem to pull you back to being your 13-year-old self.” This might include: taking a walk, going to a café for an hour or going for a drive.
- Creating a tradition that’s meaningful or feels festive to you, such as ice skating, looking at holiday lights or attending a candlelight service.
- Being of service to others, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or participating in a toy or clothes drive.
“Kindness has infinite forms; experiment with how to be kind as you recognize how you feel and do your best to respond.”
4. Think in terms of “want to” or “get to.”
According to Eder, this technique has two parts: First, reframe your thoughts. For instance, if you’re thinking, “I have to go see my family this year,” change it to, “I get to go see my family this year,” she said.
Secondly, if reframing doesn’t feel authentic, consider not doing that activity or attending that event. “[C]onsider passing on the things that you would be doing simply because you ‘have to’ and fill your time with more authentic ‘get to’ and ‘want to’ opportunities.”
5. Consider your values.
Think about opting out of activities that don’t align with your values and sense of self, Eder said. But “opt in to activities and relationships that nourish you.” For instance, this might mean making small adjustments to your plans — such as meeting family in the afternoon instead of the evening so you get enough sleep — or creating new plans altogether, she said.
6. Reach out.
If you’re feeling stressed, remember that you’re not alone, Shinraku said. The holidays are a complicated time for many of us, whether we have strained relationships with our families, are grieving the loss of a loved one or are struggling with an illness or other issues.
“Remind yourself that you are having a human experience, reach out to the friends or family who you can count on for support, or speak with a therapist.”
And, again, focus this holiday season on taking a self-compassionate approach, she said.