5 Questions about Surviving the Holidays

  1. When someone is feeling overwhelmed by the holidays, what are some of the most important things that they can do?
    Slowing down long enough to take an intentional breath is a start to unraveling feeling overwhelmed. Though it may seem counter-intuitive when all you want to do is keep moving faster and faster, pausing to breathe can be the beginning of claiming back your sense of perspective beyond present circumstances. Another essential tool for "grounding" yourself is using your senses to bring you back to the present moment. "I see the mist around the crescent moon." "I smell the nutmeg in the cookies." "I feel the softness of the blanket around me." "I taste the sweetness of the apple I just ate." "I hear the music in the background." Slowing down your breathing and paying attention to the information you receive from your senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound), are immediate and accessible ways to "anchor" yourself when feeling overwhelmed.

  2. What are healthy ways to deal with stress?
    The Pennsylvania Psychological Association offers strategies in an article about minimizing holiday stress entitled Manage Your Money to Manage Stress During the Holiday Season. I found this to be a very useful resource and would invite readers to access it on-line at www.psychologycanhelp.com. In addition to the strategies listed here, I suggest a "Return to the Basics" of what can work well particularly during stressful times:

    • Consider Carefully before saying "Yes" to requests so you have time to consider the reality of your needs and schedule before taking on another request or project during this busy time of year.
    • Remember the Gift of Moderation when selecting from the vast array of holiday foods and beverages offered, and when purchasing gifts. When you "overdo," you are more likely to feel uncomfortable which undermines your efforts to be festive and enjoy time with others.
    • Identify Priorities before deciding how to schedule activities over the holiday season and before shopping trips. Writing things down and referring to your list can be a useful anchor in the midst of the frenzy created by advertisers and anxious shoppers.
    • Reflect on the Meaning of the Holiday. Rushing to 'keep up' makes it easy to lose sight of what matters most. Regardless of your cultural tradition or belief system, this season is a time for connecting with others and sharing appreciation. Let this perspective, rather than the advertising industry; direct your choices about how to spend your time and energy.
    • Beware of Unfavorable Comparisons. The ability to effectively manage stress is compromised when negative thinking (cognitive distortions) "trick" you into believing that everyone else is "doing it right" and "you are doing it wrong." Remind yourself that everyone is attempting to manage what can be a very stressful time, including you. Be reasonable about your expectations and use more supportive self-talk to encourage your efforts.

  3. How should someone communicate their expectations for the holidays to their family members?
    After identifying your priorities and expectations, initiate a conversation with your significant other(s) in a casual and comfortable space. Share what your thoughts and feelings are about ways to make this holiday a pleasurable experience for all of you and invite them to do the same. Listen carefully to each other and problem-solve together. For example, if you want to decorate less this year but your child wants the same decorations you've always had, ask for help and discuss which things are most important so you can decide together how to create a the kind of holiday you can all enjoy.

  4. For people who are experiencing hardship and who might need to scale back on holiday plans or gifts, how should they share the news with friends, family and children?
    Share the news clearly and openly so there is less chance for confusion that might further complicate the situation. Frame it for yourself and others in terms that are more positive than negative: "We need to do less in some ways this year so we can do more in other ways." Recognize and model that fewer gifts can mean selecting a few special things rather than many incidental items. Identify time together doing activities (reading, playing games, taking walks, making special meals) as Gifts of the Season that last after the last package is opened.

  5. People who have recently suffered the loss of a loved one might be feeling particularly sad at this time of year. What advice do you have for them on how to cope?
    Essential to preparing for the holidays after the loss of a loved one is to actually prepare rather than attempt to avoid the emotional discomfort of thinking about the holiday in advance.

    Additionally, in The Mourning Handbook, author Helen Fitzgerald details a number of practical strategies for coping with the Holidays:

    • Consider how much of the holiday season activities you can handle. For example, if holiday cards are too much, pass on them or at least limit the number you send.
    • If going to stores is unbearable, you may want to do any gift purchasing online or offer gift cards.
    • Once you've decided what is best for you this holiday, meet with your family to let them know what you're thinking. You may also want to do the same with extended family and friends so they can plan accordingly.
    • Perhaps displaying a photograph of your loved one would be meaningful because it would feel like the person is sharing the holiday with you. However, everyone is different in this regard, so if this is problematic for other family members, you will need to a less public location for this sort of remembrance ritual.
    • Electing to do something different on the first holiday without your loved one can be helpful. The person's absence can feel a bit less pronounced when you choose to do something very different from previous traditions. Thereafter you may be interested in returning to old rituals or not.
    • If you have the options, you may decide to work on the holiday.
    • Anticipation can be worse than actual holiday. Something to consider with children is gift-wrapping small and inexpensive items for them to open beginning the first day of the holiday season. In this way they can have something to look forward to rather than a sense of dread as this first holiday approaches.
    • Look for lectures that might be available locally to help you get through the holidays. These may be offered through community centers, hospitals, funeral homes, and churches.
    • If you are a religious person, be aware that services can be reassuring or upsetting. Think about the effect attending may have on you, and then think about how much you want to participate during this time.

Overall, pay attention to your feelings and needs during the holidays giving yourself the space and time you need to honor your loss.

Rebekah L. Feeser, PhD,  psychologist and Clinical Director at FPA responded to "5 Questions about Surviving the Holidays" in the Sunday Patriot News Body & Mind section.