The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.
By Seth Bracken
Crowded malls, awkward encounters with the in-laws and increased pressure on the wallet and belt—ah, yes, the holidays fast approach. Let’s face it, they can be more hype than hope.
Each year they seem to arrive a little earlier, with the obligatory parties, long shopping lists and new and expensive “must-have” gifts for the kids. To top it off, the “hap-hap-happiest time of the year” comes with shorter days and a thermometer stuck below freezing.
So how can you avoid the blahs or blues when the parties, shopping and gift exchanges end up being more chore than cheer?
“Stress is compounded with already existing pressures during the holiday season. The holiday season starts early, so we need to start planning even earlier,” says Mary Talboys, a clinical social worker and adjunct assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Psychiatry.
It may seem overly simple, but with an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of people exhibiting some signs of winter depression, here are a few ways to tackle holiday stress.
Gifts: Plan ahead and set expectations
Children are most pleased with gifts when they can look forward to receiving gifts and then have their hopes met, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli say in “Unplugging the Christmas Machine.” Set the expectations up-front before the season is too far under way.
And not everyone at work, in the neighborhood and family needs a gift. Many people, including children, crave quality time spent together with friends and family.
Traditions: Control the chaos
If each spouse has four or five holiday traditions, it can be too overwhelming. “One client told me she spent hours each year trying to replicate her mother-in-law’s turkey dressing recipe only to discover later that her husband hates turkey dressing,” Talboys said.
Establish how many and which events you and your family will attend. Just because it’s a tradition, doesn’t mean it’s a good one and should be continued indefinitely. Find out what’s most important to each member of the family and eliminate the excess.
Toxic family: Don’t get your hopes up
If uncle George always drinks too much and tells insensitive stories, he’ll likely do it again this year, said Jason Hunziker, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah’s University Neuropsychiatric Institute. We can often anticipate some of the problems and we just have to let them go, he said.
“Sometimes we forget we’re not in a Norman Rockwell painting. Holidays are portrayed as the happiest time of the year. But for most, that’s just not true. You can’t make someone be happy on cue,” he said.
Mixed families: Bridge the gap
Even though communication might be tough, bring children into the conversation early in the season and let them be part of the solution. “Explain to the kids that ‘dad can’t be here for our celebration, but we’re going to plan some special time for him to spend with you,’” Talboys said.
Find the important events for each spouse before entering the fray of the holidays. Planning ahead of the holidays is key to avoiding awkward or difficult schedule conflicts.
Diet: Don’t try to lose weight
Try to maintain. That way you won’t face gut-wrenching guilt for having a slice of pumpkin pie. But you’ll be better prepared for a new year’s resolution to shed the pounds, said Crystal Armstrong, a family medicine physician for University of Utah Health Care. Try freezing some of your favorite treats. You’ll be less likely to overeat and can still enjoy a sweet snack for weeks.
Alcohol consumption can be particularly problematic. Even social drinkers can face overconsumption with multiple work and family events. Physicians recommend a maximum of two drinks a sitting and five to seven a week.
Exercise: Just do it
If it’s hard to find time or motivation, try walking the length of a mall or church, using exercise videos or machines at home or taking an exercise class. Find a group of equally committed friends and carpool. This will force you to work out even when you’re tired, Armstrong said.
It’s easy to get swept up into the hype, but try to keep it simple. No one will remember each gift given or received, the china used or who spent more money. But the time spent together will make a lasting impression.
“More than anything, remember this is a time to celebrate with your friends and family and enjoy the values and traditions you share. Don’t let the holiday get in the way of that,” Hunziker said. “And if it gets to be too much, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a family physician or therapist.”