The holidays have the potential to be stressful, whether it’s extra activities and responsibilities, family feuds or squabbles, cash concerns or shakeups to your daily routine.
But you can absolutely enjoy yourself and have a great holiday season. Here are eight tips from experts on making the most of the holidays.
1. Set an intention for the season.
Master Certified life and career coach Kristin Taliaferro helps her clients set an intention for the holidays, which includes both what they want to do and how they want to be. For instance, they might want to host a party or take a vacation. And they might want to be calmer, a better listener or more present with their families, she said.
When acting on your intention, try to find simple, less stressful solutions. If you really want to host a party, but feel drained just thinking about it, have a potluck instead, Taliaferro said. You get what you want, minus the stress.
2. Have realistic expectations.
Come holiday season we tend to assume that our bratty kids will transform into little angels and our always-fighting families will become the Brady Bunch. “But if [your relatives] haven’t gotten along for the other 11 months of the year, why should you think December will be any different?” said Darlene Mininni, Ph.D, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit, who works privately with individuals and speaks nationally on topics related to emotional health and well-being.
We also put a lot of pressure on ourselves to pull off the perfect holiday, with just the right gifts, food, decorations and so on. But setting sky-high and unrealistic expectations only leads to disappointment and distress and leaves you missing out.
“It’s the discrepancy between what you expect and what you get that creates disappointment and unhappiness during the holidays,” Mininni said. She suggested readers take a hard look at the reality of their expectations. If they’re idealistic, “…rethink how you’ll approach this season so you can close the gap between your fantasy and your reality.”
And look at it this way: “Relaxed and happy is so much more enjoyable than perfect and pressured,” said Andra Medea, author of Conflict Unraveled: Fixing Problems at Work and in Families and Going Home without Going Crazy: How to Get Along with Your Parents and Family (Even When They Push Your Buttons).
When things go wrong, that’s when funny memories are made, anyway. “Frankly, it’s a fabulous memory when the cat runs off with the turkey,” Medea said. She recommended Virginia Brucker’s book Gifts from the Heart: Simple Ways to Make Your Family’s Christmas More Meaningful, which focuses on simplicity and love, not perfection.
3. Have a plan for potentially tense situations.
With some relatives we know exactly how a get-together will play out, because it’s happened year after year…after year. What can help in minimizing conflict is to create a plan about how you’ll react. “Anticipate stressful situations you might encounter and be prepared with a few words to help maintain a sense of calm,” Taliaferro said.
If your mother-in-law — you know, the one who tends to push your buttons — is staying with you for several days, figure out how you’ll approach her when she inevitably hits a nerve, Taliaferro said. Let’s say she criticizes your parenting. When she makes a comment, Taliaferro said, you might reply: “I love how much you care about the kids,” and “recognize her intention, which really is about caring for the kids.” Or you might say: “Thank you for respecting my parenting style. I know sometimes that’s hard to do.”
If she continues criticizing and your intention for the season is to be calm and non-reactive, consider what would be the best action to take in this situation. “If calm inhabited your body, how would calm respond to her? Calm may leave the room and go for a walk alone to cool off,” Taliaferro said.
4. Maintain some of your routines.
Many people tend to get stressed when their routines are broken, which happens often during the holidays. “Keep some of your grounding rituals in the mix, such as daily fitness [and] getting enough sleep,” Taliaferro said. These activities give you more energy and are key stress relievers.
5. Take care of your mind, body and behavior.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D, a neuropsychologist and author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, suggested readers pay attention to their body, emotions, thoughts and actions.
- Body: We experience the physical sensations of stress and anxiety thanks to the sympathetic nervous system, our ancient fight-or-flight system. The antidote, Hanson said, is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). “Easy ways to light up the PNS include l-o-n-g exhalations, relaxing the tongue, warming the hands (or imagining that they are warm, like holding a cup of cocoa), and relaxing the body as a whole.”
- Emotions: Encourage positive emotions by focusing on and savoring all the positive experiences associated with the holidays. Spending a minute or so relishing these experiences helps them enter our long-term emotional memory and sink in, Hanson said.
- Thoughts: This time of year our heads are swirling with shoulds and musts. We know how detrimental these thoughts can be. Hanson encourages readers to return to “the simple truth that in this moment, each moment, you are actually basically alright; the simple fullness of being in the present, not regretting the past or worrying about or planning the future.”
- Actions: “Slow down and do less,” Hanson said. “Keep coming back to your breathing as you look for gifts, do dishes, wrap presents, or visit friends.” Remember that others may be struggling during the holidays, too, so be kind and compassionate. Also, consider “giving the gift of your full attention to others, rather than being distracted by your to do list; or the gifts of forgiveness, gratitude, and wholeheartedness.”
6. Create reminders of your intention.
It’s easy to get carried away, let stress consume you and forget the purpose and meaning of the holidays. A visual reminder helps bring you back and put things in perspective. Taliaferro suggested taping quotes to your fridge or putting them in frames in other areas of the house. Some of her favorite quotes:
- “The more tranquil a man becomes, the greater is his success, his influence, his power for good.” – James Allen.
- “In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you” – Deepak Chopra.
- “Peace doesn’t require two people; it requires only one. It has to be you. The problem begins and ends there.” – Byron Katie.
- “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” – author unknown.
7. Create an environment of calm.
Taliaferro also suggested creating a sense of calm in your different environments. For instance, “play calm music at home, in your car or at work.” Have objects that relax you, too, such as scented candles.
8. Have fun activities planned for get-togethers.
“Since holiday guests can be a source of stress for people, plan very simple and pleasurable activities with your more ‘challenging’ relatives and you may find the relationship flows much easier in that moment since you’re both having fun,” Taliaferro said.
“Rather than just fume, waiting for Uncle Jeff to act out, have some DVDs of old comedies. Abbott and Costello doing ‘Who’s on First?’ works for any generation,” Medea added. She also suggested taking out your oldest photo albums and sharing the stories behind them.
And in general, don’t forget that all families are complicated. “A simple family is like asking for a simple universe,” Medea said. “Families are wonderfully complex, layered, with generations of baggage.” And don’t forget, too, that the holiday season “also brings the possibility of building bridges back to people we love, even if they drive us crazy.”