As much as the approaching holidays can be a time of joy and celebration, for many people this time of year is also filled with increased stress and can be overwhelming. According to surveys from the American Psychological Association, and from Healthline, on holiday stress, some of the major causes of stress include money issues, lack of time, difficulty adhering to healthy habits, commercialism, and pressure to get and give gifts. For many, this time of year becomes so busy that we often don’t pause to reflect on what might be most helpful for us. Yet taking a little time for reflection and for being proactive can go a long way towards transforming our stress at this time of year. I’d like to offer a short practice to do this, and some concrete suggestions for how to translate this into actions and changes that can have a positive impact on your holiday season.
A Short Practice
This short exercise will help you to identify both what is most stressful for you, and what is most important to you, about the holidays. Set aside a few minutes to do this when you will be undisturbed. Close your eyes and begin to envision the holidays approaching. Bring your awareness into your body and notice your first reactions. Do you experience openness, ease, tension, constriction, or something else? Stay with these body sensations for a minute or more and see what information they might offer you. In the next minute or more, notice what emotions are present for you. Do you feel excitement, anxiety, worry, joy, something else? Notice what is there without judging it. Now ask yourself what you feel most stressed about as you think about the holidays. Take some time to be still and listen to what arises. It may or may not be what you expect. When you are ready, ask yourself what is most important to you around the holidays (e.g., time to spend with family, following holiday traditions, religious/spiritual meaning, an opportunity to give to others, time away from work, etc.). Take a few minutes to pause and truly listen to your responses.
When you are ready, bring your awareness back into the room and make two lists. On the first list, write out your top three stressors, and on the second list, write out the top three most important things that make the holiday time meaningful. You have now laid the groundwork for bringing more mindful awareness into your days as you go forward, and you can refer to these lists to help guide you with the suggestions below.
Use your list of what is most important to help you prioritize.
As you go through the weeks ahead, remind yourself of what is most important to you, and use this as a guidepost to prioritize and align your actions and choices with what matters most. Rather than going through the weeks on automatic pilot, continue to remind yourself of what matters most, and put a plan in place for how to focus on this. For example, if the religious aspect of the holiday is most important, think ahead how you can make this part of the holiday more of an emphasis (don’t leave it to chance). If you value time spent with family members, set priorities and plan proactively how you might ensure this happens. It might mean letting go of some of the lesser important things to you in order to do this (perhaps buying some prepared foods instead of doing all the cooking—or including the kids in the cooking, or saying no to the work party that you would rather not go to).
Use your list of what is most stressful to come up with an action plan.
As you think about the major sources of your stress, be mindful of the choices that are available to you. (Often we forget that we have choices when we are under stress, or we miss seeing options available to us.) Be creative. Examine what aspect of the circumstances you might have some control over, and put an action plan in place if possible. Here are just a few examples to get you started:
If money is a major source of stress for you, perhaps suggest doing a “Yankee swap” for the adults that you exchange gifts with, and put a limit on the dollar amount spent; frame a picture of the family as a gift for a relative, or perhaps frame a drawing or note from a child for a gift. Not all gifts need be material, even for children. Some ideas of non-material gifts for children include getting to stay up an hour past bedtime on a weekend of their choice; getting a “special day” with a parent 1:1; having a special “camping” night where you build a fort together in the house, watch a movie and have a sleepover in there.
If you are anxiously anticipating challenging family dynamics, have some strategies in advance for what you will do if and when you encounter a stressful situation. If Aunt Linda tends to trigger you with her biting comments, plan in advance that if that happens you can excuse yourself and focus your attention on an art project with the children; or perhaps remind yourself in advance that Aunt Linda is under stress having recently lost her job and that these comments are coming from a place of pain and not personally directed towards you. You might agree in advance with certain family members not to talk about politics for the day. If necessary, set boundaries, including limiting your time with difficult family members.
If not enough time, and trying to take on too much is a major source of stress and overwhelm, look for places to simplify (see above) and ways to elicit help so you are not doing it all. Perhaps consider having your meal potluck so everyone shares in the cooking. Consider having children take on tasks such as helping to wrap presents for cousins, etc. One woman I know delegates a job to all family members and guests on the day of big family gatherings, to serve and clean up the holiday meal together so that it becomes a complete team effort. Also, you might plan to build in short meditation breaks during your day when you feel stress building (I have some on my website you can try out).
If commercialism and consumerism are a big source of your stress, come up with proactive strategies for coping. You might choose to make donations in honor of an adult relative to a favorite charity instead of giving an additional material gift for that person; perhaps find a place to volunteer at holiday time, or have each family member give a gift to a child or adult in need.
When we make the time to identify what is most important to us, and what triggers stress for us, we create the space to be more mindful as we move through the holiday season and to choose behaviors that are most in line with our values. We also introduce the opportunity to be proactive, and this can go a long way towards transforming holiday stress.