Holding it together through the Holidays

As a therapist, I observe closely the trends I see in human behaviour, and I’ve noticed that as the days shorten and the countdown to the holidays begins, anxiety mounts.  Stop for a moment and think of your last holiday season.  If visions of exhaustion and over-consumption danced in your head, perhaps it’s time to sit back and dust off those sugar-plums.  Tired bodies, frantic minds, and racing the clock do not make for merriment.  Without a holiday map and compass, the “season of joy” can become obscured by a fog of stress.  Sometimes it seems as if we urbanites step on to a conveyer belt in early December, and are funneled along at an ever increasing pace through endless shopping trips and parties, consuming unusual amounts of rich food and alcohol, and finding little time to sleep or exercise.  In this depleted state, we are dumped, exhausted, into the New Year.

Yet some negotiate this season of hustle with great agility, stepping on and off the conveyer belt at will, and conserving time for quality activities which nurture their bodies, minds, souls, and relationships.  They can often be heard murmuring, “Mom in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter’s nap”.  How do they do it?  Here are some tips.

Tailoring traditions to meet your needs is a good place to start

A thorough review of history may mean that we’re not “doomed to repeat it”.  First, identify what works really well.  Good!  Repeat it.  Now notice what needs to be let go.  Don’t attend the company party.  Draw names for gifts.  Let a sibling cook the family dinner.  Equally important, what tradition do you want to begin?  Is it quality time with your children?  Some personal down time?  A ritual to acknowledge the passing of one year, and the beginning of the next?  Write down five achievable things that would bring jolliness to the holidays (don’t forget the nap).  New is good…life is all about making changes.  Tell supportive friends or family members your plans.  Now that you’ve fired your imagination, your unconscious will watch for opportunity.

Next, consider who’s driving your holiday 

As children, we had little power or choice regarding holiday activities; adults, however, can largely determine the course of their holidays.  Make a road map based on your goals, needs and values well before the holiday crunch hits.  With goals clearly in sight, you will not be blown off course by the constant demands from within and without.  The road map can include factors such as:  who to spend time with, how much money to spend, how to handle gifts, and how busy to be.  The clearer you are on what you desire for yourself, the better you are able to spot the roadblocks and navigate your chosen course.  Short detours may be necessary, but with plan in hand, you will steer the first possible course back to your path rather than getting lost.

One particularly difficult hurdle for some is managing food and alcohol.  The average person gains 6 lbs over the holidays.  If maintaining health during the holidays is a concern, cultivating consciousness of the fuel we’re giving our body is critical.   Diets tend not to work, but pre-planning and mental rehearsal of desired behaviour does.  Visualize how you will respond to food and/or alcohol at a party.  See yourself asking for a glass of water or herbal tea.  Consume more water than alcohol.  Sip alcohol slowly.  Reach for the vegetables five times and the chips once.   Dip in hummus or salsa rather than sour cream.  Practice a firm “no thanks”.  Arrive full.  Walk to the party.

Another seasonal hazard is becoming a super parent
Advance planning and work-sharing are critical skills to polish off during the holidays. Take time to sit down with the whole family and discuss the needs and desires of each, then map out a reasonable plan to meet the dearest of these wishes.  Manage the extra tasks of the holidays by drawing up an age-appropriate chore list which is assigned to all family members.  The kids can wrap gifts and decorate the tree, Mom handles the cards, and Dad manages the social calendar.

Though it can be a magical season, do not engage in magical thinking that lures you into over-committing your time or your money.  Remind yourself vigorously that expensive gifts are not truly a measure of your love, and demonstrate your care in creative ways that are respectful of your finances.  Experts agree that quality time is the single biggest gift a parent can give a child.  Participate in a free skate at a local community centre, go tobogganing on the beautiful North Shore mountains, watch a movie together at home, contribute as a family to your community by wrapping presents, or serving soup in a kitchen.

Socializing can put you on a collision course with exhaustion

When outings become obligations, slow down.  Sadly, as much as we might want to, we cannot be all things to all people.  Unrealistic expectations of self and of the holiday season abound.  The holidays become painful when limits are not established.  If insanity is “repeating the same behaviours and expecting a different outcome”, alter your role.  If certain members of the extended family disrupt holiday activities, limit the time spent with them.  Stay in a hotel if your in-laws drive you nuts.  Don’t rise to the bait at the dinner table.  Don’t serve alcohol if it’s been a problem in the past.  Expect dysfunction where it has always existed, and navigate clear.  Only Scrooge changes his colours during the holidays.  Remind yourself that you can’t control what happens, but you can choose how you respond.

Blended families may pose unique challenges.  Open communication early in the season and a willingness to be flexible is key to success.  Keep your perspective, and your eye on the big picture.  Don’t be afraid to create new rituals which fit the new family.  Remember that humour is loved by all, and eases many strains.

Finally, for best results, stay awake at the wheel

Holidays pile on additional pressure by straining budgets, patience and health.  Expect irritability and exhaustion, and counter these effects with extra rest and self care for the whole family.  Sleep doesn’t cost anything, and a bath, or walk on the beach, or listening to peaceful music will rejuvenate jangled nerves.  Focus on activities that bring fellowship and renewal.  The adage “Keep it simple” was written for the holiday season.  Here are some practical ways of doing so:

  • Guests are happy to contribute.  Enlist their help with preparation and cleaning.
  • Stop at “good”.  Outlaw “perfect”
  • Schedule naps.  Seriously.
  • Shop early—the selection is fatter and the crowds thinner.
  • Consider potluck for Christmas dinner.  Or go out.
  • Look at your TO DO list.  Remove a third of the less critical items.

With some advance planning, your holiday season can bring many opportunities for renewal and reconnection.