Solving Holiday Stress During 2020- The Longest Year We May Ever Experience
By: Dwight Bain, LMHC, NCC
This feels like the longest year in history ... not in calendar days, which are still the same. Nope. 2020 has felt longer because of so much pandemic related stress. Working from home, social isolation with every concert and sporting event shut down, lay-offs, recession, students trying to manage school exams via zoom, conflict over the election, managing face masks to go outside, and now the reality that COVID 19 will not magically go away when vaccines are available in 2021.
Coronavirus has changed the way most American's function, and ruining for some what would traditionally be a happy holiday season.
USA Today newspaper captured this in a recent snapshot poll that asked, “Which best fits your holiday emotional state?”
Stressed – 27%
Depressed – 24%
Relaxed – 18%
Joyful – 31%
The majority of people are overwhelmed by negative emotions and have missed the joy. What can be done to help people feeling anxious and overloaded with so many challenges this year?
Breathe. Count your blessings. And don't make it worse. The first two are easy if you are physically well and understand the power of gratitude. Making it worse flows out of trying to live up to unrealistic expectations of creating a 'perfect' Christmas during this very imperfect time.
Pushing yourself to make this holiday season bigger and better than ever is like following in the footsteps of Clark W. Griswald from the movie ‘Christmas Vacation'. Clark is the loveable, but laughable nice guy who tries to do everything right for his family to celebrate, only to have everything go wrong. (Spoiler alert)... Dysfunctional relatives, one blown bulb derailing all of the decorations, the Christmas tree goes up in flames, the turkey is dry, the check for the swimming pool is going to bounce; then add in a crazy cousin kidnapping the hateful boss, while the dog destroys the house chasing a rabid squirrel and a confused senior citizen sings the national anthem as the yard decorations are blasted across the sky; basically Christmas chaos. The movie makes us laugh because there are elements that hold true in many holiday customs that many people follow during a 'normal' time. COVID 19 is anything but normal.
Holiday traditions may not have much to do with faith in God, or even common sense, but still become a passionate pursuit for millions of people desperately seeking the perfect holiday to escape pandemic pressure. Holiday stress doesn’t create perfection or peace, but it does take the focus off the simple message of "peace on earth and good will toward all men" to put it onto a thousand other things that don’t have much to do with the message of Christmas, rather it is about doing more to try and forget the pandemic. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day typically will cause people to feel really good or really bad without much space in between. This year is quite different. Typical decorations, holiday travel and family gatherings will be dramatically changed. Don't make it worse. Accept the change, breathe, and seek the joy. It's still there once you learn to manage around the stressful emotions.
Holidays can cause isolated people to feel deep loneliness, people struggling with addictions to relapse, anxious people turn into a bundle of nerves and sadly it’s the time of year that many give up on their mental and physical health because they are just too “busy” to take care of themselves. The solution is not to ignore your holiday traditions during 2020, rather to realize it is imperative to set holiday boundaries to find the joy as we move to the end of a very stress filled year. You may not understand the concept of “holiday boundary” but it is basically a line during the holiday’s that marks a limit. Research points to the spike in self-destructive behavior because people feel unable to say “no” to all of the extra demands on their time, money, and energy. Bottom line- the holidays don’t bring gifts to stressed people, just more problems. Breathe. You don't have to burnout this holiday season.
Some families are uncomfortable about hurting the feelings of their family and friends, so they keep silent and tolerate situations or endure guilt-ridden obligations that occur during the holidays. Sometimes that silent tolerance makes a complex situation much worse, while all the dysfunction steals the real joy the holidays were meant to bring. You must practice self-care by having courage to set boundaries in key areas if you want to finish this challenging year with strength.
You can set limits on spending because it’s not necessary to try to stimulate the entire economy by buying gifts for every relative, neighbor and delivery driver in your neighborhood. It is okay to say “No” while sticking to a budget and modeling kindness, sharing an encouraging word of gratitude or practicing the “presence” of being available. Reaching out with words could be a much more thoughtful gift than just sending a “present.” Lonely people don't need another kitchen gadget as much as a phone conversation about how they have been managing the pandemic.
Did you know the average American will gain 6 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years Day? That’s a pound per week! You are allowed to say “No” to overeating or over drinking and you are allowed to keep a healthy lifestyle pattern with exercise and especially sleep. Many people starve themselves of sleep by trying to decorate, wrap or travel 20 hours per day. It is dangerous to be sleep deprived and can be life threatening when driving. Holiday boundaries can keep you and your family safe when you enforce them.
Have you ever watched someone have a “melt down” during the holidays? If you aren’t familiar with this expression it means to be so totally stressed, you can’t think or function. Making clear decisions is impossible when you are in overload mode, and the likelihood of blowing up on the people you love increases. Why would people make impulsive choices during Christmas vacation that makes their life worse? Even more important is how to spot the choices that steals energy to do something creative about it? Wisdom is to figure out the emotional triggers so you can enjoy every day of the holiday season, instead of feeling miserable while enduring it. Understand there is a dysfunctional process that creates a “meltdown” experience where life goes from bad to worse. It follows a series of predictable steps. People suffering from the Holiday burnout have conditioned themselves to follow a pattern of behavior that makes every day of the Christmas season chaotic and potentially every holiday tradition a catastrophe. They never allow themselves to relax and count blessings during the holidays because their total focus is on pleasing others. They don’t actually have good days, just less miserable ones where nothing goes right because they usually are looking for the worst possible scenario. It’s like the old saying, “Cheer up- things could get worse. So, I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.” If the only things you are searching for are more problems this time of year, then you can be sure that you will find more than enough to stay stressed out and afraid.
Breathe. You don't have to burnout this holiday. How to break the cycle?
Spiritually - Get outside of your own fears and focus on God to inspire you to see beyond yourself. Read scripture, pray, journal, or meditate about the blessings of your life, which stimulate gratitude. Get outside of your own world to focus on the greater needs in the rest of the world. Skip being more religious to become more relational and model kindness. Seek quiet inspiration instead of hectic shopping trips to avoid feeling empty, afraid, and alone through the last few weeks of 2020.
Media - Turn off most of the television news and current events, especially big tragedies, or global events you can’t do anything about. Avoid negative media messages which often are full of depressing images that discourage you with a continual flood of bad news which will distract you from the simplicity and joy about the true meaning of Christmas. As you replace the bad news of the pandemic with the hundreds of thousands of positive stories of everyday heroes your mood will get a true holiday boost. Every day people are making a difference. Find those stories for inspiration
Physical - Self-care is not selfish and starts by protecting your health. You can do this faster by getting more sleep. Avoid pushing your body to the limits and learn to sit still to take quiet times to rest. Skip being idle or sitting and watching TV or social media for any form of exercise. Learn to get outside in the sunshine to get a boost from nature. Creation will always boost your mood. In the process of protecting your health, learn to eat clean and skip sweets this holiday. The worse the food is for you, the worse you will usually feel; and drinking lots of alcohol does not make relationships better.
Emotional - Learn to express your fears and find creative ways to release pressure. As you journal, talk and set goals you can find a positive view of the future. Managing emotions will also protect you from overspending, overeating, over drinking or other unhealthy behaviors. Creating a holiday budget by creating a realistic financial spending plan for gifts will protect you from the financial obligations that pile up for many people this time of year. Let your partner or family members know what keeps you up at night. Finding safe places to talk with coaches, counselors, pastors, co-workers, or friends can help you process your fears to find greater strength during this very difficult year. When you stuff feelings and try to go it alone you end up feeling miserable, and during stressful times like this it could lead to a downward spiral of negative emotions which could steal the energy you need to manage the extra pressures that pop up this time of year.
Healthy people take positive action to break the cycle of unhealthy behavior. Everyone faces challenges and tough days but some face them with strength by making better choices. Please let today be the day you boldly break the negative stress cycle to focus on the simplicity of the Christmas season. You have the power to change and make today better. Choose to set boundaries that protect your health with simplicity this Christmas season, because that is a gift that will last well beyond the pandemic and for decades to come.