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Managing holiday stress

Welcome to the holiday season—that whirlwind of gift-giving holidays, Christmas carols, holiday parties, cooking marathons, and activities galore that all occur during December.

People love the holidays and look forward to spending time with loved ones, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday season isn’t also the harbinger of holiday stress for many. In fact, according to a HCF Health Report, 70% of Australians are bracing for a stressful holiday season. What is it about this time of the year that has us struggling to relax?

Making up for a bad year

No one is going to deny that this year has been hard. We’ve had extended lockdowns and been separated from our loved ones, and we’re still gradually easing restrictions. So, it makes sense that getting together for the holidays seems that much more important this year.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a substantial mental health toll on all of us. You shouldn’t expect yourself to immediately be okay just because it’s December, let alone expect to be able to juggle the additional stress that comes with the holidays without batting an eyelash. Even without the pandemic, the holidays are usually far from perfect.

When planning your holiday get together, remember that the thing people will be looking forward to the most, even more than a clean house and huge spread, is spending time with you. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like they were before the pandemic. As families change and grow, we allow our traditions and rituals to change and grow with them. There’s no reason why these traditions and rituals shouldn’t be allowed to change and grow due to the current times.

Choose a few to hold on to and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children or other relatives can’t come to your home, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, or videos. Or meet virtually on a video call. Even though your holiday plans may look different this year, you can find ways to celebrate.

Doing too much

All things in moderation, as the saying goes. The problem with the holiday season is that we often experience too much of a good thing. Too many activities, even if they are fun activities, can culminate in too much holiday stress and leave us feeling frazzled, rather than fulfilled.

Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity.  

Eating, drinking, and spending too much

An overabundance of parties and gift-giving occasions leads many people to eat, drink and be merry—often to excess. The temptation to overindulge in spending, rich desserts or alcohol can cause many people the lasting stress of dealing with consequences (debt, weight gain, memories of embarrassing behaviour) that can linger long after the season is over.

Also, in these more difficult financial times, finding affordable gifts can be stressful in itself, and carrying holiday debt is a tradition that too many people unwittingly bring on themselves, and the stress that comes with it can last for months.

Before you do your gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.

Family differences

The holidays are a time when extended families tend to gather. While this can be a wonderful thing, even the most close-knit families can overdose on togetherness, making it hard for family members to maintain a healthy balance between bonding and alone time. Many families also have roles that each member falls into that have more to do with who individuals used to be rather than who they are today, which can sometimes bring more dread than love to these gatherings.

Some families have a history of arguing over certain topics or differences. This year particularly, there are even more topics that you may find yourself disagreeing with family members on. If you’re not sure whether asking your aunt why she’s not vaccinated is going to cause major conflict, it’s best not to bring it up.

Too much alone time

This can be a tough time for many people, especially those who have lost partners or parents, as it reminds them of their loneliness. As the world seems to be gathering with family, those who rely more on their friends for emotional support can feel alone and left behind.

Try taking some extra special care of yourself. It may not completely erase feelings of loneliness, but self-care can help you feel better. Whether you take a relaxing bath, read a good book, practise your favourite hobby, or learn something new, doing something for yourself is important during stressful times.

If you feel lonely or isolated, try seeking out community, religious, or other social events or communities. Many may have websites, online support groups, social media sites or virtual events. They can offer support and companionship.

Seek professional help if you need it.

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Don’t let the holidays become something you dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays.