from the relationship center

Staying sane through the holidays

Common holiday stressors and what to do about them

Posted 12/4/19

The holiday season is upon us and many are happy about it, while others experience the holidays with a sense of dread. There are many things that can go wrong during the holidays. Even if things do …

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from the relationship center

Staying sane through the holidays

Common holiday stressors and what to do about them


The holiday season is upon us and many are happy about it, while others experience the holidays with a sense of dread. There are many things that can go wrong during the holidays. Even if things do go perfectly, the stress of creating that perfection can be enormous.

Here are some of the pitfalls and ideas to get around them:

Finances: The holidays are often a time when our credit cards get a workout. You want to buy the perfect gift; if the price is out of reach, you get it anyway. You’re adding to the credit-card debt you still haven’t paid off from last year. Being in debt is something that wreaks havoc with our self-esteem. It’s so hard to love yourself when you are struggling financially. Additionally, being with someone who doesn’t share your views on holiday spending can cause problems in your relationship as your more conservative partner watches the expenditures pour in.

What to do?

You can start a Christmas Club for next year and commit to spending only what you’ve saved. You might create a budget and vow to keep gift purchases within it. You could consider homemade gifts, which tend to cost less but are more valued.

Disconnection: The holidays are a peak time for suicide. People who want to be among family and friends spend the holiday season alone. No matter the reason, it’s a hard time of year to be alone. You may want to reach out with the famed holiday spirit and invite anyone in your life to the festivities who you know will be spending the day alone.

What to do? If you are the one alone for the holidays, reach out to family or friends and ask to be included. If this doesn’t seem possible, there are always places you can go to volunteer on holidays to help make the day better for people who just might be worse off than you. (A side-benefit of this approach is that you will often feel better for having done so.) You could also treat this day as a regular day and go about your usual routine.

Broken/damaged relationships: You may be dreading the holidays because you know you will be brought face-to-face with someone you’d rather not see. Perhaps you’ve had an argument or have drifted apart. Whatever the reason, sharing a space with someone you are estranged from can be uncomfortable at best.

What to do? You could decide to stay home. You could go to the event with the plan to avoid the person in question, making it awkward for everyone else at the gathering. You could also use some of that holiday spirit to attempt to reconcile with this person. Extend an olive branch and see what happens.

Awkward conversations: Do you find that your holiday gatherings have highly opinionated people who are passionately on opposite ends of controversial issues? Do you worry about getting together because these topics might come up, causing a rift or disruption to the day for you and others? When this is the case, it can be quite stressful thinking about seeing those people.

What to do? You could choose not to attend. You could go but vow to not engage in the controversial discussions, having several responses at the ready, i.e. “I promised myself not to talk about that topic this year.” You could practice how to have responses that are well-thought out and simply state your opinion, while allowing the other people to state theirs. You would be agreeing to disagree without feeling the need to change anyone’s mind.

Competition: You might think the holidays is no time for competition, but I have seen it rear its ugly head. Brothers and sisters may be competing for attention from their parents, people may be trying to purchase the best gift for someone and others may be competing to ‘win’ the satisfaction of the most successful gathering of the year.

What to do? If you are the one who doesn’t like the competition, you can simply stop competing. Allow the other person to be the best without argument. You could make it a game by keeping a score card in your head, finding amusement in the antics. You could limit the amount of time you stay, leaving before things get super competitive.

Recent and raw grief: Sometimes the first holiday season after a death is very difficult, and everyone handles grief in their own way. Perhaps you have a person who is still devasted by the loss and you are someone who has already moved on.

What to do? Recognize that grief is a very personal response to loss. Remember that people process differently and allow everyone to be where they are in the process. Offer to listen if a person seems to need to talk about it. If you have someone who isn’t dealing well with grief, don’t decide the family dinner is the time to bring it up. Plan a private chat after the gathering is over. You can also organize those touched by the grief to create a holiday tradition that will honor the person who is missing.

Being boxed in by tradition: This can occur especially at the beginning of a relationship when deciding whose family you are going to celebrate with. It can also happen when one person in the family is doing something they don’t want to do mainly to please someone else. Sometimes, you do things to please your partner and that’s fine, but you may need some boundaries if it becomes a problem and you’re starting to resent it.

What to do? Get clear about why you are doing what you are doing. Are you expecting your partner to reciprocate? Are you feeling angry and resentful? Do you really not want to do what you are doing? You have some choices: You can keep on doing it even though you are frustrated. You can turn that frustration into appreciation by reminding yourself it is gift you are giving the relationship. You can have a conversation with your partner and negotiate your holiday time—things you do together and things you may do apart. You can simply stop accommodating and do what you want to do regardless of the effect that has on the relationship.

Alcohol and other drugs: Holidays bring people together and, for a variety of reasons, alcohol and other drugs are sometimes present in abundance. If you are involved with someone who may have difficulty knowing when enough is enough, this can add to your holiday stress.

What to do? You can have a conversation ahead of time about usage and when to stop, and maybe develop a signal to use if things are verging on problematic. You could stay home if you are a guest or stop serving alcohol if you are the host. You could decide to let loose and enjoy with others. You could choose to leave when the other person starts getting obnoxious.

Time crunch: The usual complaint around the holidays is that there are only 24 hours in a day. The planner in the family typically has a vision about how things need to be, and it takes an army to match that vision. This army comes in the form of family and sometimes close friends. You may feel the stress of not enough time or the pressure from someone else to do things you find frivolous for the holidays. Either way, the time crunch is problematic.

What to do? Scale back. Talk to your people to see what is important in making the holidays special, including your important things. Look for the things that aren’t on the list and eliminate them. You could continue as you have been, making everyone around you crazy trying to match your ‘perfect’ vision. You could cancel the holidays this year and go on vacation or staycation instead.

For most of these stressors, I’ve provided at least three options, but they were only meant to prime your imagination pump. Maybe none of my suggestions will work for you, but the idea is not to be a victim of holiday stress. Take control of your life and your happiness this year by eliminating and reducing the stress that isn’t helping you have the special holiday time you want.

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