It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year — but not if negative emotions take hold of your holidays. So let’s be honest. The holidays are packed with stress, and therefore provoke tons of depression and anxiety.
But there is hope. Whether I’m fretting about something as trite as stocking stuffers or as complicated as managing difficult family relationships, I apply a few rules that I’ve learned over the years.
These 9 rules help me put the joy back into the festivities — or at least keep me from hurling a mistletoe at Santa and landing myself on the “naughty” list.
1. Expect the Worst
Now that’s a cheery thought for this jolly season. What I’m trying to say is that you have to predict bad behavior before it happens so that you can catch it in your holiday mitt and toss it back, instead of having it knock you to the floor. It’s simple math, really. If every year for the last decade, Uncle Ted has given you a bottle of Merlot, knowing full well that you are a recovering alcoholic and have been sober for more years than his kids have been out of diapers, you can safely assume he will do this again. So what do you do? Catch it in your “slightly-annoyed” mitt. (And maybe reciprocate by giving him a cheese basket for his high cholesterol.)
2. Remember to “SEE”
No, I don’t mean for you to schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist. SEE stands for Sleeping regularly, Eating well, and Exercising. Without these three basics, you can forget about an enjoyable (or even tolerable) holiday. Get your seven to nine hours of sleep and practice good sleep hygiene: go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up in the same nightgown with the same man at the same time in the same house every morning.
Eating well and exercise are codependent, at least in my body, because my biggest motivator for exercising is the reduction in guilt I feel about splurging on dessert. Large quantities of sugar or high fructose corn syrup can poison your brain. If you know your weak spot–the end of the table where Aunt Judy places her homemade hazelnut holiday balls — then swim, walk, or jog ten extra minutes to compensate for your well-deserved treat. Another acronym to remember during the holidays is HALT: don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
3. Beef Up Your Support
If you attend Al-Anon once a week, go twice a week during the holidays. If you attend a yoga class twice a week, try to fit in another. Schedule an extra therapy session as insurance against the potential meltdowns ahead of you. Pad yourself with extra layers of emotional resilience by discussing in advance specific concerns you have about X, Y, and Z with a counselor, minister, or friend (preferably one who doesn’t gossip).
In my life with two young kids, this means getting extra babysitters so that if I have a meltdown in Starbucks like I did two years ago — before I knew the mall was menacing to my inner peace — I will have an extra ten minutes to record in my journal what I learned from that experience.
4. Avoid Toxic People
This one’s difficult if the toxic people happen to be hosting Christmas dinner! But in general, just try your best to avoid pernicious humans in December. And if you absolutely must see such folks, then allow only enough time for digestion and gift-giving. Drink no more than one glass of wine in order to preserve your ability to think rationally. You don’t want to get confused and decide you really do love these people, only to hear them say something horribly offensive two minutes later, causing you to storm off all aggravated and hurt. (This would also be a good time to remember Rule #1.)
5. Know Thyself
In other words, identify your triggers. As a highly sensitive person (as described in Elaine Aron’s book, “The Highly Sensitive Person”), I know that my triggers exist in a petri dish of bacteria known as the Westfield Annapolis Mall. Between Halloween and New Years, I won’t go near that place because Santa is there and he scares me with his long beard, which holds in its cute white curls every virus of every local preschool. Before you make too many plans this holiday season, list your triggers: people, places, and things that tend to trigger your fears and bring out your worst traits.
6. Travel With Polyester, Not Linen
By this, I do not mean sporting the polyester skirt with the red sequined reindeer. I’m saying that you should lower your standards and make traveling as easy as possible, both literally and figuratively. Do you really want to be looking for an iron for that beautiful linen or cotton dress when you arrive at your destination? I didn’t think so — life’s too short for travel irons.
I used to be adamantly opposed to using a portable DVD player in the car to entertain the kids because I thought it would create two spoiled monsters whose imaginations had rotted courtesy of Disney. One nine-hour car trip home to Ohio for Christmas, I cried uncle after six hours of constant squabbling and screaming coming from the back seat. Now David and Katherine only fight over which movie they get to watch first. If you have a no-food rule policy for the car, I’d amend that one during the holidays as well.
7. Make Your Own Traditions
Of course, you don’t need the “polyester” rule if you ban holiday travel altogether. That’s what I did this year. As the daughter/sister who abandoned her family in Ohio by moving out east, it has always been my responsibility to travel during the holidays. But my kids are now four and six. I can’t continue to haul the family to the Midwest every year. We are our own family. So I said this to my mom a few weeks ago: “It’s very important that I spend time with you, but I’d like to do it as a less stressful time, like the summer, when traveling is easier.” She wasn’t thrilled, but she understood.
Making your own tradition might mean Christmas Eve is reserved for your family and the extended family is invited over for brunch on Christmas Day. Or vice versa. Basically, it’s laying down some rules so that you have better control over the situation. As a people-pleaser who hates to cook, I make a better guest than host, but sometimes serenity comes in taking the driver’s seat, and telling the passengers to fasten their seatbelts and be quiet.
8. Get Out of Yourself
According to Gandhi, the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others. But that doesn’t necessarily mean holding a soup ladle. Since my name and the word “kitchen” have filed a restraining order on each other, I like to think there are a variety of ways you can serve others.
Matthew 6:21 says “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, start with the things you like to do. For me, that is saying a rosary for a depressed Beyond Blue reader, or visiting a priest-friend who needs encouragement and support in order to continue his ministry, or helping talented writer friends get published. I’d like to think this is service, too, because if those people are empowered by my actions, then I’ve contributed to a better world just as much as if I had dished out mashed potatoes to a homeless person at a shelter.
9. Exercise Your Funny Bone
“Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods,” says a Japanese proverb. So, if you’re with someone who thinks he’s God, the natural response would be to laugh! But seriously folks, research shows that laughing is good for your health. And, unlike exercise, it’s always enjoyable! The funniest people in my life are those who have been to hell and back, bought the t-shirt, and then accidentally shrunk it in the wash. Humor kept them alive — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Remember, with a funny bone in place — even if it’s in a cast — everything is tolerable.
My “9 Holiday Depression Busters” are also featured in a Beliefnet gallery. You can get to it by clicking here.