How to stress less and make the holidays mean more

The holidays can be a wonderful time - maybe, if we’re lucky, even the most wonderful time of the year. Any moment when we’re given space to be more thoughtful to others, gather with the people we love, and feel gratitude for all we have is an incredible gift.

But the holidays are incredibly complex. We’re pressured to show our love by spending money on tangible gifts. We’re told to consume as much as we can as a mode of celebration. If we allow it, we’re made to feel that if we aren’t seamlessly prepared, constantly happy and financially ready to make every wish come true, then there must be something wrong with us.

Feelings of failure dramatically impact us any time of year, but in December they can make it seem like we’re not just letting ourselves down, but also our families, friends and the very ideal of the “the holidays” itself. That’s a lot to deal with. This leads many of us to emergency fallback mode — smile and you’ll feel better, put on a happy face, grin and bear it, etc. Anyone who has ever chugged a (very strong) eggnog in the bathroom before forcing a jovial look and heading back into the warzone knows this tactic all too well. It doesn’t work.

It’s an interesting (and research-backed) contradiction that the very act of forcing ourselves to feel happy makes us feel less happy. It’s also well-documented that many people tend to feel more depressed during the holidays. The seemingly never-ending rounds of planning, celebrating and recuperating are filled with triggers. It’s easy to mindlessly do things that we’re told should make us feel happy instead of the things that actually do.

You can help bring the true spirit of the holidays closer to those around you by practicing a little extra sensitivity, awareness and — most importantly of all — self-compassion when things start to feel tough.

1. You’re allowed to be imperfect

Perfection doesn’t exist. Neither does constant happiness. Intellectually we know this, but when the pressure of the holidays hits it can be much easier said than done to remember it.

No matter how much you try to control every aspect of what you’re planning, something will happen that you simply can’t stop: the kids will fight, the stuffing will burn, the cat will throw up on Nana’s new slippers. That’s life. And, despite what we’re led to believe, the realities of life don’t suddenly suspend themselves come December 1st.

The real downside of perfection-striving is that it reduces your ability to see moments of real joy. It’s heartbreaking to think that a person who so very dearly wants things to be flawless will not only see more flaws, but also miss out on the real, raw and beautiful moment that they deserve to be present for and to feel they’re a part of.

Simply acknowledging that nothing will be perfect is the first step. All emotions are multi-faceted. In fact, we can feel greater happiness because we feel sadness, not despite it. When you allow yourself to let go of perfectionist tendencies, you’ll find that, surprisingly, the situations that used to challenge you can feel better — and closer to perfect — than they did before.

2. Remind yourself it’s okay to feel anxious

One of the most tried and tested methods to reduce anxiety is simply to take a moment to acknowledge that a) you feel anxious right now and that b) that’s totally okay. It’s very easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of planning and activities. Everyone can benefit by taking a few seconds to stop, breathe, and let themselves feel that whatever they’re feeling in that instant is valid and real.

3. Remember not everyone feels the same way about that holidays that you do

Because we have such a commonly-accepted ideal of what the holidays should be and feel like, it’s even easier for us to paint the holidays with the same red and green brush. While it can seem that one of the best aspects of the holidays is its ability to bring us all together, it doesn’t magically change the fact that we’re all complex individuals.

Our unique experiences and histories of the holidays make us more likely, not less, to feel differently — even oddly — during this time of year. Our personal circumstances can lead us to act out based on feelings that not everyone around us will immediately understand.

In reality, this is a key period to try to be aware of how others experience the holidays, for good and for bad. An upside of this is that it gives us an opportunity to be a truly thoughtful host, friend or partner when we open our minds and take the time to adjust our own expectations to make room for the needs of another.

Time off isn’t time off for everyone. For people who work full-time (overtime, really, because it’s basically all day, every day) in their home, the holidays cause a major increase in the number of tasks they need to accomplish and the number of hours they need to work to make it all happen. Add the pressure we usually add on stay-at-home workers to make everything perfect, plus the lack of recognition they often receive for their work during the rest of the year, and burnout can seem inevitable. We can help counteract some of this by simply acknowledging the extra workload, proactively offering to help more and checking in often to see how primary caregivers are coping with the extra stress.

Dealing with grief during the season. The holidays are incredibly hard for those whose loved ones have died, particularly if it’s the first holiday season since or happened very recently. Grief is an extremely complex state-of-being at any time of year but is exacerbated during the holidays. Whether you’re experiencing this yourself, or know you’ll be with a grieving person and want to support them, there are some research-backed ways to approach the holidays that can give some comfort (and, hopefully, even joy) to those who have good reason to find the holidays harder to celebrate than you do.

Mental health issues can feel harder to overcome. For those living with a mental health issue (and by the time we reach the age of 40, half of all Canadians will have a mental health issue at one point in their life) the holidays can feel like a gauntlet of challenges. This is an area where a little bit of planning and consideration can go a very long way. If you know you’ll be seeing a family member you have a contentious relationship with, it helps to come prepared with some new strategies to deal with them. Also, holiday celebrations are incredibly centred around eating and alcohol. For folks living with addiction and eating disorders, triggers are everywhere and can feel overwhelming. Simple acts like communicating with them in advance on how to help them enjoy themselves can make a huge difference to how they’ll feel coming to your event and, even though it might feel awkward at first, truly show how much you care about their comfort and happiness.

4. Match your activities to your values

Deep down, most of us want more presence and fewer presents. Consumerism kicks into high gear over the holidays. As many of us, particularly young people, become more digitally connected and exposed to advertising, Black Friday-backlash has increased and led lots of consumers to rethink their connections between buying physical gifts and showing care for those we love.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a special gift, but it’s important to be aware of why you’re doing it and if it aligns with your core values. This is one instance where quality before quantity is a very strong indicator of how you value giving gifts. Do you relish the feeling of being able to thoughtfully give something you know will be used and treasured? Or are you caught up in a cycle of “needing” to buy more and more physical gifts because you’ve equated the number of boxes under a tree with the amount of your love for your family?

Gifts by themselves aren’t traditions. For most people it’s the ritual or repeated activity that satisfies our needs for belonging and togetherness, not whatever came in a box. Traditions and their deep-seated meaning in our families are the cornerstone of the holidays. But you might find that you regularly plan activities because that’s what you’ve always done, and not because they really mean something to you or help you live your values.

The good news is that all traditions started as a first-time idea, and that means that you can adjust how you and your family celebrates the holidays anytime you want. New traditions that encourage us to add more authenticity and meaning back into the holidays can be a much-needed antidote to seasonal excess while also giving you perspective and a mental health break.

Plan a charity activity together: This might seem like a no-brainer. Of course donating financially to any worthwhile group (at any time) is a meaningful thing to do, but engaging in a selfless act together as a group of friends or family truly allows you to feel how putting others before you gives you a sense of purpose and value that no physical gift can come close to matching. Search for holiday volunteer opportunities in your city and you can easily see which worthwhile organizations could use your help.

Plan to keep doing it all year long: People naturally feel more charitable during the holidays, and that’s a good thing. But the organizations that you help out in December need your support all year long. In fact, they need it more  in other times of the year. Commit to a quarterly or monthly regular activity and, as cheesy as it might sound, you can keep that holiday feeling going all year round.

Give experiences before things: Make the holidays more green by thinking of ways you can give gifts that your loved ones can experience without adding to landfills or the recycling bin. Plan something you’ll do with the person you’re gifting to and show how you value spending one-on-one time with them no matter the time of year.

See how you feel when it’s all done: Extra holiday pressure is normal. Chronic stress is dangerous, and can manifest not only with psychological struggles but can have very real, detrimental effects on your physical health as well. Set a reminder to check in with yourself when January rolls around. If you feel more like yourself again then it’s possible the regular holiday stress has moved on.

While it’s a very good skill to be aware of your feelings and remind yourself that rough moments will pass, if you find yourself constantly experiencing rough moments, even after the holidays, then it’s equally important to know when you might have a more serious issue and it could be time to talk to someone or ask for help.



Jeremy Elder is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.
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