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December 2004
Holiday Stress and How to Manage It

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

Your Thanksgiving leftovers are still clinging to the Tupperware, yet you’re already dreading what’s ahead. Even if you tried to deny the truth of the calendar page on the wall, every day there are new reminders, like those slick gift catalogs clogging your mailbox and the toy commercials on TV. Time to get in gear with the holiday travel plans or start sprucing up the house for your out-of-town guests. Vacuum the car! Wash the carpets! Wash the dog! Dig out those holiday recipes and shop, shop, shop!

"Striving to live up to Grandmaís perfectly shaped sugar cookies or Momís perfectly trimmed tree is STRESSFUL! Let go of unrealistic expectations and give your family the gift they want most this holiday season — YOU (being your most loving and relaxed self)."

The dictionary defines holiday as: “a day taken off or set aside for leisure and enjoyment, when somebody is exempt from work or normal activity.” Unfortunately, for too many of us and our families, the ‘holiday season’ is synonymous with ‘stress’.

To understand how a “day off set aside for enjoyment” has gotten so intertwined with stress, let me share with you some of the responses 12-18 year olds provided to my Student Stress Survey.

When I asked: “What does the word stress mean?” the kids said things like this:

  • Stress means never feeling like you can relax, you always have to be doing things that you feel forced into.
  • A ton of pressure to be or act a certain way and you’re not sure you can do it.
  • Everyone pushing you to work non-stop.
  • Frustration. Worried. Overload. Overworked. Overwhelmed. Exhausted.
  • A tax on your soul.

Sound like the holidays around your house?

And when I asked: “How do you feel when you’re stressed?” they mentioned these feelings:

Tense. Tired. Nervous. Angry and sad. Irritable. Moody, Cranky, Defensive. Drained. About to collapse. Gloomy. Melancholy. Trapped. Hopeless. Alone. Under pressure. Like I want to cry. My mind becomes a blur. I clench my fists and punch things. I yell and don’t want to be talked to. I may start to feel nauseous, or warm and faint. I feel slower. I feel like bashing something to little pieces and swearing I show a lot of attitude. I feel like I’m going to blow up. When I get stressed sometimes I don’t think before I do things. “Like I want to strangle someone.” Alone. I feel like ‘ugh’ I want to disappear, tight, combative, drained.

All over the emotional map, but none of it cheery and full of spirit, that’s for sure!

When we let stress define our holidays we set up a formula for unhappiness — just the opposite of what we really want, which is time with our families. Peaceful, fun-filled time together that provides us with a direct experience of what it means to be part of a family while allowing each member to feel loved and appreciated. But that’s impossible when Mom and Dad are stressed-out.

My new book Too Stressed to Think? A Teen Guide to Staying Sane When Life Makes You Crazy (co-authored with Ruth Kirschner) is coming out in early September 2005. It’s all about the fact that when we’re stressed we can’t think clearly. And when we aren’t thinking clearly we are much more likely to make choices that we’ll later regret.

How does that translate into our relationships within the family?

When I asked the teens: “Recall a time when you were stressed and did something (or failed to do something) that you later regretted” they said things like:

I lied. Talked back to my mom. Didn’t ask for help when I needed it. Got into a fight. Tried to make myself throw up. Argued. Judged someone without knowing the whole story. Destroyed. Hit. Showed my dad attitude. Didn’t speak up for myself. Broke. Pushed. Slapped. Hurt. Threw. Yelled. Swore. Screamed. Punched a brick wall and my knuckles started to bleed. Ruined a friendship.

Hard to make good choices when you’re stressed and not thinking clearly!

You’ll enjoy the holidays (and every day) much more if you can learn to recognize your signs of stress BEFORE you lose it and do something you’ll later regret.

When you get better at managing your stress levels, you’re also being a positive role model for your kids.

Annie’s Holiday Dos and Don’ts

DON’T

  • Don’t let stress hijack your thinking brain (you need to be in the driver’s seat to make good, conscious choices and enjoy the holidays)

DO

  • Do what you enjoy doing
  • Do ask for help
  • Do give yourself breaks from the ‘work’ of creating a family event
  • Do realize that human beings are not ‘perfect’ — it’s not in our DNA. Picture-perfect holiday images are not real. Striving to live up to Grandma’s perfectly shaped sugar cookies or Mom’s perfectly trimmed tree is STRESSFUL!
  • Do stay within your financial comfort zone when purchasing gifts for the people you love. (Post-holiday credit card bills are an enormous stressor and a bad way to start the New Year.)
  • Do let go of unrealistic expectations (other people’s and your own).

When your mood starts to change and you first notice you’re stressing you need to:

  1. STOP
  2. BREATHE — Take a break. Take a walk. Take a nap. Listen to music. Take a warm bath — whatever healthy choice works to de-stress you.
  3. THINK about what you want (right here and now) and list your OPTIONS for getting there.

If you give yourself enough time to calm down and think clearly, you’ll live a healthier life, and you’ll be teaching your kids that intelligent, thoughtful people can consciously choose to manage stress in ways that help everyone feel happier and more comfortable, including yourself.

Give your family the gift they want most this holiday season — YOU (being your most loving and relaxed self).

Happy holidays from my family to yours.

In friendship,

Annie

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