Handling Holiday Stressors
The holiday season is an exciting, yet often exasperating, time. Holiday cheer, family togetherness and generosity often share the stage with stress, family conflict and unmet expectations. For those in recovery, navigating this minefield of contradictions poses a risk of returning to old patterns and unhealthy behaviors as a coping strategy.
Holiday Stress and Holiday Depression
The holidays are a time of increased stress for most Americans, according to a study by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, a social and business research firm.
While most people reported positive emotions such as happiness (78%) and high spirits (60%), many respondents disliked the commercial aspects of the holidays, such as shopping (18%), increased expenses (13%), and commercialism (5%).
Stress during the holidays was reported by 61% and fatigue by 68%; 38% said their overall stress levels increased over the holidays, as opposed to 8% who said it decreased.
Holiday stress can easily turn into “holiday blues”, or holiday depression, where feelings of sadness, loneliness and anxiety are experienced. Increased expectations, often unmet, disappointment, fatigue and a sense of being overwhelmed all contribute to the potential for depression during the holidays.
- Stress: Increased activity levels and expectations (shopping for gifts, dealing with crowds and traffic, anxieties about spending) add to stress during the holidays. There is also the stress of organizing or attending family get-togethers and the fear of dysfunctional family interactions. For those in recovery, remaining abstinent in the face of the increased exposure to drinking as a celebratory activity is a factor as well.
- Family Dysfunction: It is traditional to spend time with relatives during the holidays. But in some families, this “together time” is awkward, and the anxiety leading up to and during family get-togethers can trigger depression, especially when family dysfunction is expected and/or experienced. The disconnect between the ideal image of a traditional family holiday and one’s dysfunctional family experience feeds disappointment and feelings of loss and sadness about how things “should “happen.
- Loneliness: While some people have family issues, others feel sadness because they have no family around to share the holidays with. Financial constraints, family estrangement and other restrictions can contribute to severe loneliness during the holidays. Sometimes family members or friends have passed away and the holidays trigger grief feelings and repetitive reminders of one’s loss.
- Unmet Expectations: When actual holiday experiences don’t match up with one’s idea of what a picture-perfect holiday season should be like, some people find themselves disappointed and saddened. Whether it’s holiday parties that poop, loved ones expressing lukewarm enthusiasm for their gifts, or negative interactions with family members, holiday expectations that are unmet are a common cause of holiday blues or depression.
Positive Ways to Deal with Holiday Stressors
You don’t have to let holiday stress turn into holiday blues or holiday depression. Here are some practical tips that can help you get through the holidays with less stress and more pleasure, all while staying true to your recovery goals.
- Be Realistic: We often expect the holidays to feel significantly different from the rest of the year, but this may be due to our constant exposure to cultural and commercialization cues. While childhood memories may conjure up warm and fuzzy scenes, we need to question whether these could be self-edited memories that have been influenced by repeated advertising messages.
In reality, the holidays are only going to be as happy and joyous as we make them, and accomplishing that requires work, which usually comes with added stress. It is up to us to balance our desired holiday reality with a realistic one.
- Practice Self-Care and Prioritize Your Recovery: Avoid over-indulging on food, fun or festivities. The holidays are often a time of excess; we tend to worry less about our budget, our waistlines and our self-discipline. But there is no escaping the repercussions if we let ourselves “fall off the wagon” in any of these areas, especially when it comes to easing up on self-discipline as it relates to one’s recovery. While others can more easily get back on track after a holiday binge–of food, drink or other excess–for those in recovery it may not be a simple or easy task.
So while others “party hardy,” you may want to use exercise, such as walking, swimming, biking or working out to help release brain endorphins and stimulate serotonin, both of which can lift your mood. Volunteering and spending time in nature are also ways to get pleasurable brain chemicals flowing in a safe and positive way.
- Disengage from Family Dysfunction: While family issues may present challenges during get-togethers, you can choose to set aside your resentments and, for the sake of the season, call a truce. Even if you are the only one to honor it, you will feel better about yourself if you refrain from the airing of grievance during the holiday celebration. You will also set an example for others that they may decide to follow in the future.
If you expect family members will insist on bringing up old issues and remind you of your shortcomings, plan ahead to have a non-confrontational come-back. Practice or role play your answers to common comments so that you are prepared and can maintain your composure and commitment to your truce.
You might consider having a heart-to-heart, direct conversation with one or more family members prior to your holiday celebration. Tell them of your intention to set aside resentments and ask if it is possible that they can do the same. Ask what you can do to make them feel more comfortable during the get-together, and then follow through on their suggestions. Save any discussion or disagreements regarding “fairness” of their requests for a follow-up feedback discussion after the holidays.
- Remember Your Support System: While the holidays traditionally focus on family, for some “family” consists of those who, while not related by blood, are nonetheless close confidants and supporters. If you are in recovery, remember that you can always call on your support group friends and sponsor for additional assistance.
If you are feeling vulnerable, increase your attendance at meetings during the holiday season. Have a “sober buddy” attend functions with you, or come pick you up if needed. Plan to arrive late and leave early if you are uncertain about your ability to remain strong.
Plan Ahead, Enjoy the Holidays
The holidays are a time to re-connect with family and honor traditions. By knowing your limits and planning ahead, you can experience the holidays with less stress and more joy.
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