Rethinking Holiday Stress

by John Hoffman

‘Tis the season to be…. stressed?

It seems like I can’t turn around these days without hearing people talking about holiday stress. My first reaction is always, “Ick! Can’t we talk about happier things at this time of the year?” Then my next thought is, “Well, yeah, I know people who find Christmas (the holiday I celebrate) stressful.” And I know stresses can be magnified on “big” days, when we really, really want everything to go well.

Personally, I have not experienced a lot of Christmas stress. But then, I’m lucky enough to have an extended family where people get along well, enjoy being together and don’t make unreasonable demands of each other.

I’ve heard some very sad stories of stressful Christmases. Family get-togethers that were too big and too long, with too many dogs on hand and several of the kids were afraid of dogs. Adult siblings who couldn’t get along, grandparents who didn’t understand when parents didn’t want to do two long drives on Christmas Day.

But even when nothing really bad goes wrong, the holiday period can come with a lot of little stresses that can build up – changes in routine, getting less sleep than usual, big expectations, overeating, having to spend more time than usual in big groups of people. For families with young kids there is overstimulation for the kids and the added pressure on parents to make sure their kids “behave.”

So what’s the answer? I sure don’t have the whole answer. But here’s my number one first line strategy for any difficult, stressful or bad situation.

Whatever else you do, don’t make it worse.

That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. We make stress worse all the time. That’s because when you’re stressed, your stress response system puts your body into a state of high alert. You’re ready to act or react to a threat. So the thinking, reasoning and social parts of your brain are pushed to the background. This is a good thing if you are facing a threat. It’s not so good if you’re trying to get through a day that involves a three hour drive with young kids who are over excited, or putting on a meal for a big throng that includes that brother-in-law you don’t get along with.

What’s the answer? The first step towards not making stress worse is learning to see people’s behaviour (including your own) differently – in terms of how it might be affected by stress. Because if you can see that stress is driving someone else’s behaviour or words you’re going to be more understanding and forgiving. So you will be less likely to react in a way that increases’ everybody’s stress. When stressed out people are interacting, but it’s their stress systems that are interacting (sort of) rather than the thinking and social areas of the brain. So they often feed each other’s stress. That leads to increasing frustration; tension or anger which raise the stress levels and make the situation worse.

But, if you can understand and see the stresses that are behind the person’s behaviour, not only are you more forgiving, you have a better idea of how to help the situation. And you help by reducing (not adding to) the stress the person is experiencing. That’s helps both of you.

For example, I remember one Christmas when I sort of snapped at my sister-in-law. It was during the last few tense minutes leading up to serving Christmas dinner. My wife and I were embroiled in trying to get a bunch of dishes ready and on the table when they were still hot. My sister-in-law came in and made a comment about what we were doing with the gravy. I said something snippy to her. She stopped, clearly taken aback by my comment. And of course I felt bad about what I’d said, and defensive about what she’d said. It was an uncomfortable moment. But instead of storming off, or making a snippy comment back at me she said, “OK. Is there anything I can do to help?” Exactly the right thing to say to not make the situation worse. She understood why I over reacted. She forgave me for that and tried to reduce my stress a little bit by backing off and offering to help.

Responding like that is not always easy to do, but it starts with being sensitive to how stress is affecting people’s behaviour and keeping in mind that reducing the stress of a situation is better than adding to it. I think this is something we all know how to do and that we all do when we’re at our best. But when we’re stressed we often forget.

So give that some thought. I’ll bet you’ll find little ways to reduce (or at least not add to) your family’s stress this holiday season.

If you’re looking for more ideas about holiday stress, I wrote a blog last December about preventing holiday meltdowns in young kids. You can read it here.

Here’s hoping your holiday season is joyous and (relatively) stress-free!



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