With the arrival of the holidays comes the annual season of family, food, gifts, and stress.
The holidays may be a joyous time, but they can also exacerbate many stressors that could lead to increased feelings of anxiety for many people just wanting to have some family fun.
The American Psychological Association was concerned about stress levels during the holidays, so they’ve created their own for anyone looking for a little help.
The APA even identified the top four main stressors of the holidays: difficult family conversations, the pressure of gift giving, finances, and managing expectations.
Vaile Wright, PhD, a clinical psychologist and APA’s director of research and special projects, said the holidays can be difficult for a variety of reasons.
“I think for most people the holidays are a joyful, positive time, but for certain groups we do know that the holidays do bring added stressors,” she said.
She explained that the finance and pressure of the holidays can take a toll on some groups.
“Those groups are usually women, or those who feel some responsibility for the family,” she said. “Then also individuals who are maybe lower income… who really struggle to find the extra income to afford the holidays.”
The annual family argument
The APA listed one of the top four stressors as “difficult family gatherings.” As families reunite under one roof, long-held grievances or competing political ideologies can lead to arguments or insults that ruin even the best holiday feast.
To avoid this stress, Wright advised that each family can decide how they want to approach delicate topics.
“There are no hard or fast rules about this, some families might decide that the holidays are a time to not talk about challenging things. For others, this may be a perfect time because everybody is all together so it makes a lot of sense to have effective dialogues.”
Wright said that if you’re roped into a discussion you’re eager to avoid, you should feel able to remove yourself.
“Walking away is fine — taking a break — if two people are having a discussion among themselves and you don’t want to be a part of it, remove yourself.”
However, if someone is discussing a topic that you have a moral objection to, according to Wright it’s fine to speak up and (delicately) contradict them.
“If you are hearing people saying things that you find morally reprehensible, I think it is our responsibility to speak up and speak up in a way that’s effective,” she said.
But she suggested avoiding accusatory statements or mean-spirited arguing.
“When we communicate how we really feel to somebody and do it in a way that we can feel good about that maintains the relationship, I think we feel better at the end,” she said.
If the idea of getting a gift for everyone from your cubicle mate to your third cousin is giving you a holiday headache, Wright has some advice on staying sane and not going broke.
Wright explained that families should be upfront with their financial resources and transparent with kids.
“One of the things that’s important to do is really sit down and think about what are the traditions you have and evaluate if they line up with your goals and values,” she said.
For example, a family might decide that instead of spending money on lots of little presents, they’ll pool together money for a vacation.
“If you really sit down and ask yourself ‘What’s important to me around this time of year?’ And you come up with family. Then you know [is] finding the perfect gift really in line with you spending time with family?” she said.
The APA also has a few suggestions including keeping a holiday to-do list so there’s no last-minute scramble for gifts. They also advise setting realistic expectations so that you don’t feel the pressure to give everyone including your office mate the best gift they’ve ever received.
Don’t go in debt for the holidays
The pressure of gift giving, traveling, and hosting holiday parties can all put an additional strain on your wallet.
The APA has a few key tips for keeping your sanity and your wallet from being depleted.
They advise making one financial decision at a time, tracking your spending, and making a plan to address your financial stressors.
By making one financial decision at a time, you won’t be worn down and lacking willpower to say no. Tracking expenses has been found to help people rein in their spending. Additionally, making a financial plan can help people avoid being overwhelmed by their expenses.
“When your holiday expense list outstrips your monthly budget, scale back,” the APA advised. “Remind yourself that family, friends and relationships matter more than material objects.”
Manage your holiday Pinterest-fueled expectations
Everyone loves to show off a beautiful Christmas tree, menorah, or other holiday memento. But a nonstop onslaught of picture-perfect holiday scenes on Facebook can make even the most put-together host feel inadequate.
The APA said it can be helpful to set realistic expectations and remember a “burned brisket” doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun and memorable holiday.
Additionally, the APA advised that if a child asks for a present that’s too expensive, parents can talk about what’s realistic as a gift and why the holidays are more than just gifts.
Wright also suggested people take time for themselves and pay attention to signs that the holiday stress is taking a toll on their health.
“For a lot of people, stress may first manifest itself as physical symptoms, like an upset stomach, headaches, like feeling like your blood pressure rising” she said. “You want to be paying attention to these symptoms before they get worse.”
The APA said people can avoid being overwhelmed by reflecting on “aspects of your life that give you joy,” going on a walk, and generally taking time for yourself.
Wright said if stress symptoms start to impede your life, it might be helpful to start seeing a counselor or talk to someone about what’s causing your stress.
“When it starts to interfere in significant ways in our life, that’s when we’ve really got to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on.”
In general, Wright said she wants people to take it easy on themselves and try to enjoy spending time with family and friends.
“I want to encourage everyone to give themselves a break. There is no such thing as a perfect holiday.”