by Martine Bacci Siegel
The holidays offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and anxious — the gifts you haven’t wrapped, the pile of cookie exchange invites, the office parties. But for many, the biggest source of holiday stress is family — the family dinner, the obligations, and the burden of family tradition. And if you’re fighting clinical depression, or have had depression in the past, the holiday stress can be a trigger for more serious problems.
“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that’s doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”
With holiday family reunions looming in your calendar, what are some ways that you can prepare yourself and cope better this season? We turned to the experts for some tips on beating holiday stress and anxiety.
What Causes Holiday Stress?
First, ask yourself this: What about the holidays gets you down? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly. For many people, holiday stress is triggered by:
- Unhappy memories. Going home for the holidays naturally makes people remember old times, but for you the memories may be more bitter than sweet.
- Toxic relatives. Holidays can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. People struggling with depression may face stigma, too. “Some relatives don’t really believe you’re depressed,” says Gloria Pope, director of advocacy and public policy at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. “They think you’re just lazy, or that it’s all in your head. It can be really hurtful.”
- What’s changed? The holidays can highlight everything that’s changed in your lives — a divorce, a death in the family, a son who’s making his first trip back home after starting college. Any of these can really unsettle a gathering and add holiday stress.
- What’s stayed the same? For others, it’s the monotonous sameness of family holiday gatherings that
depresses them — the same faces, the same jokes, and the same food on the same china plates.
Controlling Holiday Stress
Experts say that the holidays can make people feel out of control. We feel at the mercy of our relatives or steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. But you have a say. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.
Changing Your Outlook
The next step is to challenge some of your assumptions. If you enjoyed the holidays differently this year, what would happen? What if you didn’t go to your aunt’s for dinner? What if you didn’t bring the poinsettias to your grandfather’s grave? The key is to be conscious about what you’re doing. This holiday season; don’t unthinkingly do things the same way just because that’s how you always do them. If the old holiday traditions aren’t working, if they’re not making you happy and causing holiday stress, it’s time to do something different.
Tips for Beating Holiday Stress
Once you’ve taken a clear look at the holidays — about what works and what doesn’t — it’s time to make some changes. Focus on the holiday stresses that you can control. That includes making different plans and changing your responses to situations. Here are four key don’ts for the holidays.
- Don’t do the same old thing.
- Don’t expect miracles.
- Don’t overdo it
- Don’t worry about how things should be.