Despite the onslaught of advertising, television, film and other media imploring us to “be happy” during the holiday season, for many of us, this is decidedly not “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Joblessness, homelessness, to say nothing of the fact that we are waging two wars abroad, and the resulting sense of loss and longing that so many Americans are confronting: Try tossing out these topics as icebreakers at your next holiday party!
Oftentimes, the holiday season conjures up additional feelings of stress, strain, anxiety, disappointment and loneliness.
This can be especially true for LGBTQ people, who may be confronting the additional stress of strained family relationships. Too often, we are met with disapproval or shame from the very people we look to for love and support: our families. Those types of judgments can turn what should be a joyous time into something decidedly darker.
Other things to watch out for include fatigue, disappointment resulting from unrealistic expectations, becoming overwhelmed by holiday commercialization, feelings of loss over past relationships, grief over the loss of someone near and dear or the pressure of financial constraints.
Sometimes to compensate or cope with these troubles, we look for comfort by drinking too much or eating more than our limit. For those who already struggle with drug or alcohol dependency or a weight issue, mounting holiday stressors can cause us to falter and go back to old familiar habits, even when we recognize them as destructive.
What follows are some useful strategies to help you cope if you’re feeling stressed during the next several weeks.
— Keep holiday expectations realistic. If your family dynamic doesn’t normally resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, then dressing it up with some holly and garland probably isn’t going to change it that dramatically. It may sound cliché, but “keep it real.”
— Pace yourself. You are in control of your holiday schedule. You don’t have to attend every social function. Make a list of what’s most important to you and prioritize activities. You may just find the most enjoyment in planning a day that is completely “unplanned,” just for some down time.
— Limit predictable sources of stress. We all have that distant (or not-so-distant) family member who make us debate answering the phone when their name appears on the caller ID. Should I, shouldn’t I? If you have to ask yourself, you probably know the answer. After all, you could always call back another time. Again, you’re in charge. If shopping, traffic, decorating and baking become overwhelming, use discretion and do something else.
— Avoid the hype ... and the debt. Despite what advertisers will have you believe, you are not a bad spouse/partner/parent/child (fill in the blank) if you don’t give them this year’s “it” item. There are many ways to show love without going into debt for it. Consider doing something thoughtful and creative that doesn’t cost too much and is personal, like planning a day trip together.
— Enjoy time with friends and loved ones. This is a tricky one. Friends and family are a source of strength and love for many people, although we mustn’t assume family and friends are safe territory for all. As adults, we can build our own families, communities and support structures, and begin our own traditions.
— Get involved. A great way to find meaning this time of year is to help others or to get involved in something new. Being around people taking part in activities helps combat feeling alone and isolated. Many organizations are eager for volunteers to get involved and contribute. It might lead to a new friend or new interest along the way.
— Don’t abandon what works. If you are experiencing more stress than usual during the holidays, remember, it’s temporary and will be over soon. Be aware of the healthy habits you worked at all year long. Exercise, yoga, avoiding extra calories and other things you incorporate into your daily schedule will work for you now, too.
— Holiday blues or depression? If your “blues” don’t go away or get worse, it could be a sign of depression. Symptoms of depression include persistent sad, anxious or empty moods, loss of pleasure and interest in activities that are usually enjoyed, feelings of guilt, hopelessness or helplessness, sleeping more or less than usual, fatigue, weight loss or gain, headaches, digestive problems, muscle or joint pain, difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions, and/or thoughts of suicide.
Depression is a treatable condition. If you or someone you care about is experiencing some of these symptoms, consult a mental health-professional or a crisis-response center.
Judy Morrissey, LCSW, is director of Mazzoni Center’s Open Door Counseling Program. Check out the center’s Holiday Survival Guide at www.mazzonicenter.org.