Under pressure: Coping with holiday stress

  • Published
  • By Capt. Phillip Howell
  • 23rd Medical Group
Many people feel mixed emotions as the holiday season approaches. The holidays can be a time of increased strain on our finances, relationships and bodies. The joy of spending time with friends and loved ones is balanced by the time, energy and money involved in planning those wonderful holiday memories happen. 

It is common for many people to put a special emphasis on having everything go perfectly to create those memories --particularly for our children.

This of course creates additional self imposed pressure. In my experience many of us also see the holidays as a "makeup" time of the year -- particularly if we feel some guilt for having neglected friends or family members during the rest of the year. 

A common thought is, "I know I have been working a lot of hours, so I'll be sure to get my son/daughter a nice gift to make up for me not being around." 

Another thought is, "I've been too busy to talk to mom and dad, so I'll be sure to give them special attention when they come and visit".

I believe those of us in uniform are especially prone to seeing the holidays as a "makeup" time. Permanent change-of-station moves, long duty hours, temporary duty assignments and deployments put considerable strain on us and our families. 

I've worked with many people who put enormous amounts of pressure on themselves to have the perfect holiday to make up for what we miss as a result of our duty. I commonly hear the phrases "I should" or "I must" from people feel they let their family and friends down by their absence.

We overlook the true spirit of the holidays when trying to create the perfect memory for our friends and family. For those whom we love and who love us, what matters most is our being there for them -- not how extensive our preparations are or how much we spend. 

Instead of feeling we must "makeup" for all the time we missed, do what you can each day. You may not feel like it is enough, but your friends and family will know you are making the effort.

The following are tips for coping with holiday stress from the Mayo Clinic:

1. Acknowledge your feelings. If a loved one has recently died or you aren't near your loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness or grief. It's OK now and then to take time just to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

2. Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your social circle. Also, enlist support for organizing holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don't have to go it alone.

3. Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. But understand in some cases that may no longer be possible. Perhaps your entire extended family can't gather together at your house. Instead, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or videotapes.

4. Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.

5. Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget. If you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.

6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That'll help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients, and you'll have time to make another pie if the first one's a flop. Allow extra time for travel so that delays won't worsen your stress.

7. Learn to say no. Believe it or not, people will understand if you can't do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you'll avoid feeling resentful and overwhelmed. If it's really not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

8. Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and schedule time for physical activity.

9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, even if it's the bathroom, for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing and restores your calm.

10. Rethink resolutions. Resolutions can set you up for failure if they're unrealistic. Don't resolve to change your whole life to make up for past excess. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose only those resolutions that help you feel valuable and provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.

11. Forget about perfection. Holiday TV specials are filled with happy endings. But in real life, people don't usually resolve problems within an hour or two. Something always comes up. You may get stuck late at the office and miss your daughter's school play, your sister may dredge up an old argument, you may forget to put nuts in the cake and your mother may criticize how you and your partner are raising the kids. All in the same day. Expect and accept imperfections.

12. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for several weeks, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Remember, a key to minimizing holiday stress is being aware that the holidays can trigger stress. Accept that things aren't always going to go as planned. Then take active steps to manage stress during the holidays. 

If you would like more information or need to speak to a staff member, call the Mental Health Clinic at 257-3898.