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5 Ways to Defuse Holiday Stress

Strategies for getting through the potential minefield

Unsplash, copyright free, Dakota Roos
Source: Unsplash, copyright free, Dakota Roos

No, it’s not just you and your inner, angsty curmudgeon: The holiday season starts earlier and earlier each year. The minute Halloween candy goes half-price, holiday lights and plastic Santas fill the shelves, and canned music assaults your ears. For the legion numbers of us for whom the holidays are a yin-yang thing at best, this is not necessarily progress. The holiday season has the singular ability to throw everything that seems to be missing from one’s life into high relief, whether it’s that loving family of origin; the adoring and loyal spouse or partner; those angelic, high-achieving, and oh-so-grateful children; that gorgeous dining room that can seat twelve comfortably; the good salary that doesn’t require you to budget for celebrations or gifts; the exotic locales other people seem to be visiting. The angst is expressed in private emails and in public, overheard in elevators, accompanied by winces and sighs: Invite Mom or not? Take a stand and bow out? Gird yourself for the inevitable unpleasantness? Go to sleep Wednesday night and wake up on Black Friday? Tell people you’re not giving gifts this year and leave for parts unknown?

Here are five strategies that can be part of your arsenal if you’re one of the many who would love to love the holidays but simply can’t.

1. Don’t be a pushover.

There’s no rule that you absolutely have to say “yes” to everyone and accommodate the planet just because it’s the season to be thankful or jolly. If you actually think that adding two more people to your table or having your third-cousin-once-removed come for Thanksgiving and stay through the weekend will upset your emotional applecart, simply say “no.” You can turn down a request without being rude, especially if you’re already feeling over-extended. If someone wants to see you and you’d like to see him or her, it doesn’t have to take place on either the third Thursday in November or on the 25th of December. The year does have 365 days. Ditto for volunteering, sewing costumes for the school play or organizing the teachers’ secret Santa gifts. Do what you can do without making yourself frantic.

2. Prepare yourself emotionally.

If your family is famously difficult, it’s really unlikely that this holiday season will be different, as one woman ruefully noted: “The dinner is always at my house and, of course, I go into it knowing that my mother will say something dreadful or hurtful and someone will react. That someone might be me but it could easily be someone else. It’s pretty much inevitable.” If you’ve decided to invite Mom, Uncle George and his outsized political views, or your neighbor who has to be the center of attention at all times, you need to strategize before the doorbell rings and drinks are served. If, after consideration, you’ve decided that excluding that difficult person will create drama of its own, decide how to handle it now and anticipate your reactions. You don’t need to fall for the bait (“If you’d asked for my recipe, the potatoes would have been delicious”) nor do you have to become a punching bag. You have every right to end a conversation. If other people are intent on creating drama, stay out of it and say what they say in Poland: “Not my circus. Not my monkey.”

3. Set boundaries.

If your family is famously fractious or the last gathering devolved into warfare, discuss it ahead of time with those attending the dinner and set clear boundaries. If someone takes umbrage at your temerity, so be it; it’s your house and you get to make the rules. Continuing to pretend that your family is potentially a subject for a Norman Rockwell painting—oh that loving harmony!—isn’t going to help. Again, there’s no need to be aggressive or give someone a talking-to; your goal is have a pleasant dinner, not to achieve a reformation of character. As the host or hostess, you have every right to ask that your guests bring their manners and best selves to the table. And if you’re a guest who’s absolutely dreading the evening—watching your brother’s in-laws drag out the board games and having to pretend to love them, listening to your sister’s friend’s endless tale of financial woe, or biting your tongue every time your father utters a word—you should either decide to be less reactive or stay home. Be adult enough not to add to the drama.

4. Work on taming your stress.

The frenetic pace around the holidays—everyone racing to get work done, setting deadlines, plus all those extra chores and errands—puts us all on edge. There’s enormous pressure on all of us to make things perfect at the holidays, especially in the age of Facebook and Instagram. Many years ago, I went to a holiday dinner at a friend’s house where the guests appeared to be playing what I called “competitive illness.” The conversation was a game of one-upmanship: who suffered more from discomfort? Who went to more doctors? This really happened. Nowadays, social media exacerbate stress and another kind of one-upmanship: the post that announces with a smiley face, “I just finished all my Xmas shopping and wrapping and it’s only the first week of November!” or the email that informs you that your in-laws will be in Bora Bora instead of eating your store-bought pie which you didn't even bother to make yourself last year or the photos of the perfectly set table for twenty your Facebook "friend" wants everyone to like. Calm down; it’s not a competition. Do less if you need to. Simplify the meal or, even more radically, ask guests to make a part of it. (Yes, you can take off your Wonder Woman outfit if you wish. Martha Stewart has other obligations and won’t be around to critique your offerings.) Instead of fretting about the menu, take a walk, go to the gym, or read a book. Stay off social media too…

5. Opt for Friendsgiving

It now has a name but I had a Friendsgiving in the early 1970s for everyone I knew who had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. (I was one of them.) If for any reason you are opting out of this holiday or even Christmas, the beauty of this gathering is that it’s communal and it doesn’t have to take place on the day. Being alone on a major holiday often feels like a mark of shame or failure but it needn’t. There’s one piece of research I always cite, which might lead some to believe it’s the only article I’ve ever read (it isn’t), that tested whether subtracting your blessings from your life would make you feel more grateful than counting them. The researchers had the wit to name the article after that holiday chestnut of a movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, in reference to the scene where Clarence the Angel shows George what would have happened to everyone in his life had he never been born. So, if the holidays are making you feel bereft and lousy about all that’s missing, why don’t you subtract what you do have and see where you come out? You’ll be amazed by all that enriches your life which that endless clatter of faux Christmas cheer has made you forget.

Whether you’re in company or alone, try to have fun, keeping in mind that tomorrow’s another day.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.

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