It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...Or Not!

By: Laura Hull, LMFT

This time of year is filled with lights, laughter, and loads of activities. From the week of Thanksgiving through the end of New Year’s celebrations, this is the most active/busy time of the year for many people. Though many regard this as a time of happy celebration, there is no doubt it is also a demanding time of the year. Between decorating, holiday parties, shopping, wrapping, food preparations, family visits, etc., it can be stressful to navigate the expectations that come along with the holidays. Sometimes the stress is enjoyable. For some people, the stress is more anxiety-provoking than pleasurable.

There is certainly an added social pressure to “enjoy” the holidays. After all, why would anyone be anxious or depressed when everyone else is partying and enjoying the festivities of the season, right? We are “supposed” to be happy during the holidays. But what if we aren’t? Depression and anxiety during this season can be an intensified problem for individuals, particularly those who struggle throughout the year. Individuals who struggle with the stresses surrounding the holidays often suffer in silence. There is a fear of being viewed as a “Debbie Downer” or a “Party Pooper.” No one wants to be seen as the person who does not enjoy Christmas. Grinch.

This is a more common issue than is often recognized. The holidays tend to bring out both the best and worst in people. On the one hand, people can be very thoughtful, generous and giving during the holidays. But it can also bring out the ugly side of stress. Look no further than the Black Friday stampedes and the obligatory fistfights that breakout, and it is obvious that the holidays sweep in loads of stress. The holidays have become bigger, more commercial, and more expensive. If there’s ever a time to feel the pressure of “keeping up with the Joneses”, this is it. The financial stress of the holiday season has worsened in recent years. Everything is more expensive. More people are unemployed or underemployed. We feel the pressure to buy, buy, and buy. We want to give our children the newest video games and other electronic equipment, whether or not we can actually afford them. We worry about how we can pay for all these things. We worry about the bills that will come due in January. Stress.

Another area, which can be challenging during the holiday season, is family relationships. For families that are feeling the strain of emotional distance and hurt feelings, the holidays can exacerbate problems already brewing. In fairness, this is not always the case. The holidays CAN be a time of reconciliation. However, if that is the expectation, that the mere fact that the “happy time of the year” is upon us will somehow smooth over existing problems, this is a set-up for disappointment. For individuals who do not have a family or close friends to celebrate the holiday season with, it can be a painful reminder of what is missing; perhaps what is longed for. For individuals who are grieving the loss of someone special, whether through death or any type of physical/emotional separation, the holidays can be an excruciating reminder of what has been lost.

When we find ourselves struggling with the stress of the holidays this year, there are ways to overcome it:

1. We can give ourselves permission to say no. Do not give in to the pressure to buy things we cannot afford. It is ok to say “we cannot take on this stress of this expense.”

2. Do not feel the need to be the life of the party. It is ok to turn down holiday invites. Do not feel pressured into participating in activities. Again, it’s OK to say “no”. However, that being said, find a way to stay engaged with others in a way that is personally meaningful and do not allow isolation to set in. Perhaps volunteering at a shelter or a children’s hospital would bring a greater sense of fulfillment than buying gifts or attending obligatory parties. This is a personal choice.

3. We are not obligated to spend time with individuals who are toxic. Yes, that includes family. In a perfect world, all of our family relationships would be healthy and loving. But sometimes, this is not the case. We are not obligated to subject ourselves to relationships that are destructive, even for the “sake of the season.” Let me say that again: we are not obligated to spend time with those who deliberately hurt us and attempt to take our joy.

4. If we are struggling with stress in the form of anger, depression, or anxiety, it is important to acknowledge it and address it. If it becomes debilitating, counseling is a great way to address these issues. Sometimes, it may be necessary to also include a medical evaluation to see if other therapies would be appropriate as well.

5. Most importantly, we must not lose sight of the “reason for the season.” I can promise you that God does not care if we have the latest trendy gadgets or the perfect holiday party outfit. We put those pressures, those stresses, on ourselves.

We have the power to release ourselves from these stresses. If we can step away, even just momentarily, from what we “think” the holidays should consist of, and really process what it is supposed to mean, things fall into place much more easily.

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