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Aug. 13, 2022

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Holidays can tax mental health

Experts offer guidance on navigating stress

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Many people are preparing to come together with loved ones for the holidays, after months of pandemic-forced distance. But with those holidays comes a slew of stress and complications: navigating complex family dynamics, intrusive questions from well-meaning aunties, and worries about money or how to make the most of the time away from work.

“I get a lot of calls after the holidays,” said Rachel Orleck with a laugh. She’s a psychologist in North Seattle who runs a private practice specializing in couples and relationships.

“A lot of stuff gets brought up around the holidays in terms of the vulnerabilities that we have, communication, time, expectations. There’s just so much that happens or doesn’t happen during the holidays.”

While celebrations can bring positive feelings like love and connection, according to the American Psychological Association 38 percent of Americans say their stress actually gets worse during the holidays, bringing negative emotions like fatigue, anger and irritability. Women specifically say they feel the pressure, especially if they take on tasks like shopping for gifts, cooking big family dinners, and cleaning afterward.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines to help you through those pressure points.

Plan ahead

Talk about or write down your expectations going into the holiday events and share them with friends or family.

“It doesn’t do you any good to talk about it in hindsight,” Orleck said.

It can also be helpful to plan for certain things you know may come up. Whether that’s knowing you need to avoid particularly thorny political topics, anticipate comments from family members about your weight or when you’ll have kids, or prepare for your social battery to run out before the festivities end, recognizing the difficult interactions that may occur can help you better prepare.

Partners can share expectations around where family dinners will take place (and with whom), how much time they’ll spend together, or how much they’ll spend on gifts. Speaking about those things out loud won’t magically align everything, but it will give your loved ones a better sense of what you do and don’t want.

Orleck suggests a code word may also help alert your partner or friend that you’re getting upset so they can help change the conversation or de-escalate the situation.

Be mindful

However, the issue for others may be that they ruminate on the stress of the holidays before they actually begin.

“Some people spend 20 hours worrying about what’s going to happen for three hours,” said Pauline Wallin, a psychologist based in Camp Hill, Pa., who specializes in managing stress around the holidays.

“It’s almost like you’re rehearsing, going through scenarios and thinking about it and by the time you get there, you’re already worked up.”

Though being aware that certain uncomfortable situations may come up can help some people prepare, Wallin explained, there’s no use worrying beforehand. You’re not really in control of what other people say or do and it only prolongs the feelings of stress.

Dealing with that stress may mean that you also reach for another glass of wine or more food once you’re with family. That’s perfectly normal, but be wary of overindulging. Americans tend to drink more during the holidays, and the consequences on your health (and your ability to be diplomatic) can be more harmful than helpful.

If you or your loved one are recovering from substance use disorder, there are also guides on how to manage the holidays sober, like this one.

Time for yourself

Though Hallmark movies will have you thinking otherwise, holidays don’t have to be jampacked with people and activities.

Consider setting up some alone time to get space to reflect or recharge. That can be a walk after dinner or even running an errand as an excuse to get an hour alone during a busy day.

Alternatively, partners or friends can set up some time to check in at the beginning or end of the day. Orleck suggests a ritual where you get coffee or tea and talk about how the day went, or your plans for the day. Checking in helps diffuse some of the stress.

For other individuals or families, this may also be the first Thanksgiving without a parent or sibling. Among the loved ones lost, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans so far, leaving behind more than 140,000 children who no longer have a primary or secondary caretaker.

That grief means you or others may not be in the mood to celebrate, especially as those feelings of loss come up.

“My advice to people is: It’s OK to sit this one out,” Wallin said.

For people who do not have or do not meet up with their biological families, it can also be a time to intentionally celebrate with chosen family and friends instead. Friendsgiving celebrations or volunteering during the holidays are good options.

PFLAG, an organization for LGBTQ+ people, parents and allies, also has a guide to help navigate topics of sexual orientation and gender identity during the holidays.

Above all else, if you’re nervous about the upcoming holidays, know you’re not alone. Many people are in similar situations and there are resources to help.

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