Q. The holidays will be here soon. Every year I get stressed out before and during the holidays. I worry about who’s coming to our house, what to cook, or how to get where we’re going. I also worry about buying and wrapping presents, finances, and ongoing family issues. If something can be worried about regarding the holidays, I worry about it. What concerns me most is whether or not my stress will affect my children ages 17, 15, and 12. What can I do to better manage my anxiety during the holidays?
A. You’re not alone. Most of our readers, and myself included, will need to work on reducing our holiday stressors. When we’re stressed out, we tend to act in ways that negatively affect our children, family, and friends. It even affects strangers. Maybe we impatiently honk our car horn more. We listen less and react negatively more quickly. We problem solve less. We’re not calm and approachable by others. The kids may whisper to each other, “Don’t bother mom (or dad) now because she (or he) is stressed out.” Here are some suggestions to help you keep stress in check:
- Get enough sleep and rest – Staying up late so you can fit in more chores during the holidays means you don’t function so well the next day. Plan some rest breaks during the day and have a regular bedtime, so you can get the amount of sleep you need to function at a maximum level. Your brain needs adequate rest to deal with things that tend to stress you.
- Eat a healthy diet – Your body will fight off colds and flu and give you a better immune defense if you’re eating good food including protein, fruits, and vegetables. Cut back on alcohol, drink more water, eat less salt, sugar, and fat, and avoid a diet heavy in carbohydrates. Eating right is a way to help keep your gut microbes healthy. It’s been found that our gut microbes talk to our brain. Let’s keep that conversation working for us.
- Plan ahead – Try eating healthy snacks before going to a party in order to minimize your need to indulge. Ahead of time, make a plan regarding what and how much you’ll eat and drink. Could a sip or two of punch and a tiny bit of chocolate satisfy cravings or curiosity? During the holidays, there are many opportunities to plan ahead, including travel. If you are traveling during the holidays, planning far in advance helps reduce last minute stressors. If you’re expecting people to stop by during the holidays, baking and freezing cookies or casseroles ahead of time also helps. Set the time and place early for celebrations with family and friends so you can plan for travel or prepare for visitors at home.
- Keep your expectations realistic – Not everything will go as planned or as you want it to go. Realize you can focus on relationships and fun without everything being perfect.
- Ask for and accept help – In your case, you have three children who can help you. Asking kids, friends, family, and others to help you provides an opportunity for bonding with them.
- Budget – Create a budget for the holidays. Give some thought as to what you can afford. Find out what others would like as presents in your price range. Come up with gift guidelines, like buying three presents for kids: one to read, one to wear, and one to satisfy a want. In addition to presents, food is another big budget item. I tend to want to cook three meats, meat substitutes for vegans, six kinds of vegetables, four kinds of desserts, and more. This gets expensive. Ask others to bring a dish and serve fewer choices. This also means less leftovers!
- Take a time out and breathe deeply – When tempted to lash out or have a meltdown, just take time out and breathe deeply until you are ready to interact with others. You can take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply several times each day to keep yourself more relaxed.
- Do something to help someone who really needs your help – You could enlist your kids to go to a nursing home and visit someone who has no one to visit them. Set this visit up with the home management before the visit. I’m sure you can identify many other ways to help someone else and involve your children in good holiday season deeds. Your children can also come up with ideas for good deeds.
You can also try some of the following activities when you want to prevent stress or feeling anxious: hug more, laugh more (even at things you do), listen to music, take walks, journal, squeeze a rubber ball, or do positive affirmations. You don’t have to do all of these activities. Choose activities you think will help you.
As a parent, you are the role model for your children in how to deal successfully with stress. Hopefully the suggestions above will help you. If you just can’t get your stress level and anxiety down, a visit to a mental health professional could be just what you need.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.