Is it Really the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
Persevering through the Holiday Season

There are three staples to the holiday season in my family: lunch with extended family, board games, and adults reverting to their childlike personalities and roles. While the end of the year can bring celebrations and cheer, it can also re-open old wounds, heighten stress, and leave many at a loss for how they can survive prolonged time with loved ones. This winter edition of Mental Health Matters focuses on modifying expectations for the holiday season and coping with stress from gatherings with loved ones.

Setting Expectations
There is a belief, rather an expectation, festivities this time of year must be perfect like Hallmark cards and the Folger’s Coffee Home for the Holidays commercials. These advertisements can make us long for the ideal holiday or remind us of what we are missing in our lives. The expectation of a perfect holiday is unrealistic and can create mental grief. Pie crusts burn, siblings clash, and children cry when they are cranky. Therefore, envisioning, expecting, and worrying about a flawless gathering sets one up for failure. Traditions are another type of expectation. A tradition of eating a family meal at 2pm like it has been done for the past 10 years may no longer be feasible. Work schedules, travel, and weather can all affect who will be at the meal and what time it will be held. Chopping down a tree a week before Christmas may no longer be possible because the parent who does the chopping is aging and it is hard to simultaneously wrangle six grandchildren. Traditions are born in families and give a sense of the “good ole times,” but people outgrow activities, desire fresh alternatives, want some time for themselves, and the tradition may no longer be possible.

One key to surviving the holiday season is managing your expectations. Will everyone truly get along this year and your event be flawless? Probably not. Focus your attitude and mental energy toward gratitude, time spent loved ones, and other values important to you this time of year.

Coping with Your Loved Ones
It is common in families for people to revert to old roles, be reminded of past/current grievances, and have some intrapersonal or interpersonal issues during gatherings. For example, family members might perceive you as the 12-year- old version of yourself despite having a home and family of your own. The confinement of space can be an added challenge because people who may not typically spend extended periods of time with one another are in the same home. Listed below are some strategies to help prepare
you for familial stress.

Emotional/Bodily Awareness: Recognize the experiences of stress on your body. You might notice a feeling of dread regarding interacting with a loved one, stress in your jaw when you think about a attending religious event, or worries about ensuring your siblings will get along with each other. These are signs you are beginning to feel stressed. Allow yourself to experience these emotions and validate it’s understandable and okay for you have to them. Engaging in self-care, by reading a magazine, baking cookies, or anything that is meaningful to you can both reduce and prevent stress.

Mental Preparations: You likely already know what generates the greatest stress for you during the holiday season whether it is your sister attempting to parent your daughter or your uncle’s passive aggressive comments. These maybe longstanding situations you encountered on many occasions making it easier to be reactive than proactive. In order to be proactive, take time to predict what will happen at a gathering and prepare your responses. Create game plans for how you will handle certain situations and interactions with others. Mentally practice how you respond to your mother when she mentions your lack of life direction. Plan what you will say and visualize how the scenario may play out in real time.

Establish Boundaries: Boundaries can be tangible or invisible. When it comes to family time, ensure you have the physical boundaries you need. For instance, you might take an hour to read by yourself in the evening or spend an afternoon visiting old friends. It’s important to ensure you have time for yourself particularly if you are in confined space. In terms of invisible boundaries, determine what topics of conversation you are willing and unwilling to discuss at gatherings. If you do not want to discuss politics, let that be known and refrain from political conversations. You might expect pushback from certain family members if you do not engage, so mentally prepare retorts and how you can assert your desires. A helpful is game-planning with a sibling/spouse so they can assist in preparing boundaries and practicing assertive communication.

Final Thoughts
Focus your mental energy on what’s important to you this season whether it be time with loved ones, religious observations, or holiday cheer. Enjoy the festivities as they occur and work toward accepting, and maybe even embracing, the imperfections this year.