How can we avoid the stress of the festive season?
I know it seems hard to believe, but we are, once again, fast approaching the holiday season.
Although millions of people across the United States and beyond are looking forward to the festivities, it can sometimes leave people feeling jaded and exhausted.
There are gifts to buy, family to visit, meals to cook, and events to plan and attend. Time is limited, money is tight, and the children won't stop crying.
Many people have stressful lives before the added pressures of the holiday season; sometimes, the extra cognitive weight can make them buckle.
A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that people in the U.S. are likely to feel more stressed around the holidays rather than less.
In this Spotlight, we cover seven simple tips that might help a person keep their mental well-being intact across this year's festive season.
1. A family affair
If you find your family challenging to be around, you are not alone. Make sure you set boundaries early on — stay for 1 night instead of two or three, for instance.
Instead of busting a gut trying to visit every relative across multiple states, limit who you go to see. Make apologies in advance to those who you might miss, and save yourself that 12-hour round trip.
You can visit great uncle Gordon in Alaska in the Spring; the weather will be more clement then, anyway.
This goes for all aspects of holiday planning: be realistic. Don't take on more than is comfortable. Not even a super hero could plan the office party, a family party, and the school Christmas play; then cook Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner, buy gifts for everyone, and still be smiling.
Don't be afraid to say "no" to some people; they probably won't mind — they might even be relieved.
If you do have to travel long distances, build in some wriggle room with the timings— if you expect delays, they won't seem quite as stressful in the likely event that they crop up.
2. Planning cash flow
It is very difficult to avoid spending too much money during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Gifts, food, drink, outings, guests, more food, more gifts; it quickly mounts up.
Although many people know they are likely to overspend during the holiday period, very few make sensible plans in advance.
This year, try to set a reasonable budget that you think you can stick to. Wherever possible, only spend cash or use a debit card. Credit cards might seem like a good idea when you are in full festive flow, but we all know they can come back to haunt us in the doldrums of January.
3. Alcohol overload
There are many opportunities to drink alcohol over the holidays. Before the festivities begin, remind yourself that you do not have to drink alcohol at every single event.
Saying "no" can be tough but rewarding.
Try to make a plan before you arrive; decide what you will drink and when, and stick to it.
Perhaps decide to make every other drink a nonalcoholic drink. Pace yourself. This can be more difficult than it sounds, but it is worth it.
Excess alcohol often causes interpersonal problems that wouldn't have arisen otherwise, especially when people are feeling more stressed than usual.
During the aftermath of a night out, dealing with relatives or making plans might be much more challenging and stressful than they would have been otherwise.
Alcohol feels like it reduces stress at the time but, in the long run, it might make things worse.
4. Calorie overload
There is no point pretending that we are going to stick to a pure and healthful eating regime for the entire holiday period. Anyone who can maintain dietary goals throughout the season receives a gold star but, for most people, it's just not a reasonable ask.
Don't put too much pressure on yourself to eat healthfully for the duration of the holidays. At the same time, make solid attempts to moderate yourself. Choose the more healthful option now and again, and don't go back for second helpings.
The guilt of falling off the wagon can really dent our happiness and confidence. Attempting to minimize this guilt will help your sense of mental well-being both during the holidays and well into the days and weeks that follow.
5. Don't let it all slide
Exercise routines tend to go out of the window, too. This, to a certain extent, is both understandable and acceptable.
We all need to take our foot off of the gas at some point during the year, so it may as well be while the weather is awful and there are plenty of good movies on the television.
Just being in nature can lift your spirits.
That said, exercise is a great way to sharpen the mind and lift a person's mood.
This is the time of year when we most need a boost, yet most of us cut out physical activities entirely.
Be sure to cut yourself some slack, but also make sure to get some exercise when you can. Even light exercise, such as walking, can be enough to stave off the festive blues.
If you can, get out into nature; so-called green exercise has been shown to boost self-esteem and improve mood.
6. Approaching loneliness and loss
Not everyone struggles with an overly busy calendar during the holidays. For some people, it can be a lonely, isolated time.
To beat this, planning is necessary. There are plenty of things to do; it is just a matter of looking around and diving in. You could join a group, start a new hobby, or, even better, volunteer for a local charity.
For many of us, the holiday season can be a reminder of loved ones we have lost. Starting new traditions can be a useful way to turn this into a positive. Perhaps consider incorporating that particular loved ones' interests into the new tradition to help keep their memory alive.
It's also a good idea to seek out people who are going through a similar experience; they will understand and might be able to offer advice, or simply a listening ear.
7. Manage your expectations
When we daydream about the holiday season, we might picture a harmonious, well-dressed, gleeful family sitting at a beautiful oak table, a huge Christmas tree, and a roaring open fire. That, sadly, is unlikely to match reality.
Before the celebrations begin, be realistic. Mental well-being can take a substantial hit if the reality doesn't match up with our preconceived ideas. However, if we have realistic expectations, we are much more likely to be happy with the results.
We do not live in a movie; we inhabit the real world — a messy, unpredictable world; expect less and roll with the punches.
The take-home message
Sadly, as is often the case, moderation is key. When approaching food and drink, exercise some reserve; when people expect too much from you, push back; if being with family stresses you out, limit the time you spend with them.
All of the above are simple in theory but can be difficult in practice. Setting yourself some guidelines ahead of time might do a world of good. Happy holidays!