How To Maintain Your Mental Health During The Holidays

By Rebecca Ward, MSW, LCSW

MaintainLife was moseying along without much ado in early October until I went into a store that had full Christmas regalia displayed throughout most of its space. That very day I had just hung my autumnal colored wreaths on my front door, pretty happy with myself for my promptness. Seeing all that red and green nipped at my confidence — but only for an instant.

I knew what was happening, and I no longer reacted to the media’s pressure to celebrate Christmas along with the onset of football, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Oh, no. Some years ago I got myself in check and made out my calendar. I decided to take an easy transition into the frantic holiday season by celebrating each separate one with appropriate appreciation, one at a time, without grinning pumpkins and fake spiderwebs intruding on the beauty of fall colors and the excitement of the first cool days. I vowed no red and green until the turkey was a carcass and had disappeared. That holiday season was lovely. I had very little stress, and I didn’t need to sleep through New Year’s. I was alive and well.

What makes holidays stressful? I’ve thought about this a lot since the onset of adulthood, which began for me when the Santa Claus years came screeching to a halt. That was a real blow to my childhood innocence. The loss of that fabulous bonanza was quite a jolt. Let me begin with this statement: Thanksgiving is my favorite family holiday. It has almost no stress connected to it… One big meal, leftovers, hugs, goodbyes and it’s done. Decorating is minimal, no gifts have to be exchanged, and there are no childhood wounds or disappointments about not “getting what you wanted” or “how much more your sibling(s) got than you did.” We don’t expect much from Thanksgiving. There’s none of the glitz, glimmer and magic we associate with Christmas. This little November gem is about food, family and football.

What creates the anticipation and dread of Christmas is all the expectations we put on ourselves and others along with the dormant ones that linger from childhood when a North Star appeared over the countryside, and a King was born in a manger. And Santa Claus and his eight flying reindeer were going to traverse the entire globe and bring dreamed-of treasures to our own homes.

If expectations are huge contributions to the disturbance of our usually well-balanced lives and our durable mental health, the focus should be on lowering our expectations. How? How can we reduce the stress and angst of all the seasonal folderol but not damper all that is fun and exciting? While the physical response to both excitement and anxiety can be similar, the emotional component is very different. What we’re aiming for is fun without fretting and excitement without shortness of breath!

First: Keep your expectations of yourself and others reality-based. You can do what you can do, and that’s enough because you have to keep yourself well-rested, well-fed, hydrated and not very cranky. If you’re getting cranky often, you are doing more than you can do. Slow down. Reevaluate the expectations.

Second: Use a calendar to help you keep activities straight, but only look at a day or two at a time. Don’t look at the whole week, much less the entire month, or you could get overwhelmed by it all. Go ahead and make your cornbread for your dressing and put it in the freezer, so that’s done. Lists can be helpful, even necessary, but you must keep them realistic. An hour is just an hour, and it won’t stretch only to accommodate your overzealous aspirations.

Third: Keep the whole idea of gift-giving in its proper perspective. Unless you’re between the ages of 4 and 9, it’s the thought that counts. (Husbands and wives have their own unique set of requirements for gift-giving, but that’s up to them.) Keep it simple, keep it real and understand that gifts don’t define. Perspective can get lost at Christmastime, so remember to employ your use of it. If money is scarce, or even if it’s plentiful, my choice of the best gift is the gift of time. Whether you bake cookies or bring me homemade fudge and come to visit — and by all means, please do! — It’s all great with me. I once read that “time is the currency of love,” and I couldn’t agree more. You can live to make another dollar, but the minutes you’re spending are not replenished. They are a priceless gift.

Fourth: Keep your Christmas personal. Make this very special yearly event your very own. No comparisons allowed. Celebrate this much-commercialized time in a way that its memory will warm you through the dark days of winter.

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