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Happier holidays: how to beat holiday stress

By Jonathan TranPham, reflect founder

Every year on my flight home for the holidays, somewhere above Arizona, I get really excited.

I’m so busy with work and packing the days leading up to Christmas that the flight is usually my first quiet moment to think. And when I do, it hits me all at once. I feel like a kid waiting for Santa. I become giddy with the thought of spending time with family and friends and seeing all the pretty decorations that fill every street, mall, and house in Houston (yep, everything is bigger in Texas!).

Then inevitably about 72 hours later, deep in the haze of shopping and eating with said love ones, I drift into another fantasy: I dream of being Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, left by myself during the holidays to do whatever I want. 

While I love being home, I also dread the holidays a little. The reality is they’re usually no Christmas Vacation. But why? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

Holiday reality

In principle, the holidays sound great: quality time with those we love, giving and receiving gifts, singing carols, and eating holiday treats. Unfortunately, real life is no Hollywood movie.

The holidays are also about obligation: people you need to see, places you need to be, and gifts you need to buy. As a result, we often forget to make time for ourselves, and feelings can quickly spiral out of control

Here are a few of the many reasons the holidays can be stressful:

Family stress -- loved ones can trigger deep issues any time of the year. This gets even worse during the holidays, when there are more family members and thus more triggers for anxiety. Traditions, expectations, interpersonal dynamics, and busy schedules all combine to exacerbate the drama. Holiday stress is particular bad for women, who often take on a bigger chunk of planning and peacemaking within families.

Money issues -- let’s be honest: Santa Claus doesn’t work for free. All this giving can create a lot of financial stress for families who are trying to stay on a budget. A 2016 study by T. Rowe Price found that 25% of parents have dipped into their emergency savings or 401(k) plan or taken out a payday loan to cover holiday expenses. This burden can cause stress that lingers long after the holiday lights have been taken down.

Lost loved ones -- one thing we don’t talk about nearly enough is the impact grief has on holiday blues. When we're all gathered around the table, it becomes even more painfully clear who's no longer with us. That can lead to real feelings of loneliness that can dampen the happiest of holidays.​​

What to do

There’s a lot that’s outside of our control during the holidays -- flight delays, crowds, and traffic for starters. And no amount of hoping can bring back lost loved ones. But the good news is there’s also a lot we can influence.

Below are a few techniques for remaining sane during this busy time. And here’s a spoiler: they all involve changing our perception:

Manage expectations

Tom Magliozzi, better known as co-host of NPR’s Car Talk show, summarizes it best when he refers to happiness as “reality minus expectation” I love this outlook because it distills such a complex concept down to pretty simple terms. The more we expect, the less our reality lives up to it, even if our reality is really, really, really great. Thus, we end up unhappy.

If we can change or manage those expectations, we can actually influence the equation and become more content, even if our objective reality stays the same.

This is often hardest during the holidays because there’s just so much expectation. Between It’s a Wonderful Life and Love Actually, anything short of a Hollywood-style miracle can feel disappointing.

The first step is separating fantasy from reality. Adjust your expectations and focus on how things are versus how they should be. Even the best intentions have a hard time if they’re compared to perfection. So instead, be present and enjoy what you have.

After all, nothing is perfect. If you need a reminder about that, check out these holiday-related Pinterest food fails, which are sure to brighten your mood.

Express gratitude  It can sometimes feel like the holidays are all about opulence and consumption -- the big red bow on the car in the driveway. (Who does that in real life anyway?!) 

Let’s try to shift the conversation and remember the true meaning of the holidays: being around loved ones and taking a moment from our busy lives to reflect on the past year.

Even with all the turmoil in the world and the craziness happening in our own country, there’s a lot to be grateful for. And lucky for us, gratitude has been found to have a hugely positive correlation with overall happiness and well-being.

It’s often not hard for us to feel thankful -- it’s just hard for us to remember to feel thankful, especially when we’re busy.

Next time you’re running from place to place, take a moment to think about what you’re grateful for. Make it a new holiday tradition to go around the table during dinner and say one thing that makes you happy. And if you’re feeling motivated, find ways to give your money or time. In high school, I volunteered at a soup kitchen during the holidays and always found that experience fulfilling.

If you focus on what you have versus what you don’t, you may find yourself with fonder memories and fuller hearts. And those will last longer than any gifts you might receive.

Socialize (for real) The holidays can seem like an endless string of tiring social obligations: work events, friends’ parties, and family commitments. With so much on our plates, fun can start to feel like a chore.

The last thing I want is to pile on. Instead, I encourage you shift priorities in favor of real connection. Studies show that meaningful social support can actually have a biological effect by changing the balance of our hormones. It can increase levels of oxytocin, which decreases anxiety and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system’s calming-down responses.

The problem is, especially during the holidays, stress can cause us to pull away from the very people who can help. It can also mean feeling extra lonely when our interactions seem superficial or forced.

Make a conscious effort to connect with those who matter, and resist the urge to just go through the motions. Carve out time to socialize with people who bring joy to your life. This can even occur within the context of existing obligations -- catch up with your best coworker between dance sets at the company holiday party or find meaningful catch-up time by going gift shopping with your best friend. It’s about quality, not quantity.

!You’ll be amazed at how these small interactions can have a huge impact on making the holidays more bearable… and even memorable!

Finally...don't forget about yourself Remember to take care of yourself this holiday. Practice the techniques above, so when your stress starts to spiral and you're tempted by Macaulay Culkin, you can instead cope and maybe even discover some holiday cheer in the process.

If you find yourself more anxious or need to talk through the issues that may arise this holiday -- family, money, or otherwise -- I also encourage you to give yourself the gift of therapy. My therapist has been instrumental in helping me better manage stress and change my outlook for the better -- way before I board my flight home.

Click here and let reflect find the right therapist for you.

Happy Holidays!

All of us at reflect wish you and your family a happy and healthy holiday. Who knows what 2020 will bring. Let’s savor the moments we have with the people who are here. After all, isn’t that the true present of Christmas?


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