While holidays are typically a time of joy and celebration, they can also be a source of stress and anxiety. Sometimes expectations about what should happen around the holidays collide with the reality of what actually happens, and this can lead to disappointment, anger, and sadness. Fortunately, there are ways to make the holidays more enjoyable!
Be proactive, not reactive. Enter the holidays with a good idea of what to expect and a plan for how to deal with events and issues as they arise. Begin by reflecting on what has happened in the past at family gatherings—this will make it possible to plan ahead. Often, small alterations in both expectations and behavior make a big difference. Talk over your plans with your spouse/partner and other family members, and take time to think through what you would like to happen during the holidays.
There are two general choices of action to consider from one year to the next:
Stick with existing traditions, but alter parts of them where necessary. If you decide to stick with existing traditions, focus on changing your expectations and behavior in relation to old patterns. For example, if a family member has arrived late to a holiday meal for the past three years, expect that he will do so again and carry on with your plans anyway. If he arrives on time, you will be pleasantly surprised. If he arrives late, you will be less upset since you expected as much.
Create new traditions and/or rituals. Creating new traditions can be an enlivening process that respects what’s come before but generates new forms of celebration reflecting present and changing circumstances. Families that feel exhausted and overextended can scale back the traditions they’ve been straining to uphold. For example, a family may feel relieved to deviate from the dinner menu they’ve prepared year after year just because it was a tradition.
The most important thing you can do to reduce stress during the holiday season is to clearly delineate what matters most about the season. Furthermore, everyone does not have to agree on everything, because there are usually sufficient areas of agreement about what’s important. If compromise in essential areas is not possible, the disagreement may be a clue to important issues that require continued attention beyond the holidays. For example, interfaith couples may find holidays particularly stressful for many reasons. These issues—though unearthed by holiday stress—deserve extra (and perhaps professional) attention going forward.
Here are some tips for reducing holiday stress:
- Be proactive rather than reactive.
- Maintain reasonable expectations.
- Be clear about what is really important to you.
- Be flexible and willing to change. In addition to making your life easier it is a great example to set for your children.
- Retain your sense of humor!
Andrew Roffman, LCSW, has over two decades of experience in helping families, couples, and individuals with emotional and behavioral problems. He is a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center and also the director of the Child Study Center’s Family Studies Program, a training program in family and couples therapy. Mr. Roffman teaches family therapy and family systems theory to psychology interns, psychiatry residents, and NYU undergraduates.
Mr. Roffman is a Member of the National Association of Social Workers. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles for professional journals as well as a book chapter in Therapeutic Hypnosis with Children and Adolescents. Mr. Roffman received “Teacher of the Year” award in 2008 and 2011 for his work with trainees at the Child Study Center and is a regular contributing editor to The Journal for Systemic Therapies.