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They key in getting through the season is prioritizing, says Toronto-based registered psychologist Lesley Lacny. "Remind yourself of what is important to you at this time of year," she says. "Is it the gifts, is it time spent with family, or is it finding time by yourself to rest, reflect, and recharge? Evaluate what you can do to stay true to the things that are important to you," says Lacny. We share the some common mental health stressors around the holidays, and how to address them.
Problem: Nasty or nosy relatives
Big holiday dinners and New Year's gatherings are prime culprits for putting you face-to-face with relatives you don't get along with, or those who have a history of sending sharp barbs or nosy questions your way.
Solution: Be prepared to either to let it go, or have responses at the ready. Remind yourself that you cannot control how others will respond but you can be intentional about your own responses, Lacny says. "Be prepared, accept that the comments will come, and decide how you would like to respond," she says. "Either choose to let it go or, if you know what the comments will be about, plan ahead and come up with some responses."
Letting go of a rude or nasty comment is challenging even for the most forgiving among us. If you choose this path, a technique to try is mental imagery. "For example, imagine a protective barrier around your body. When a hurtful comment is said, visualize the comment rebounding off your barrier and turning into dust," Lacny says.
You can also decide not to attend potentially fraught gatherings and dinners. "If it all feels too overwhelming, reevaluate and decide if attending is something that is still worthwhile for you," she adds.
Problem: Money worries
Money and holiday expenses are often the biggest stressor in December and January. Many people fly to see family, or choose this time of year to travel abroad because the kids are out of school, even though December travel is notoriously expensive. Then add piles of Christmas gifts, new outfits for parties, taxi rides, elaborate grocery lists for big dinners, and it all adds up to big bills that can suck the fun out of the season
Solution: Be honest about money, to yourself and to others. A little truthfulness can go a long way. "Others may be feeling just as stressed as you are about buying gifts. Have a discussion with those involved and see if they would prefer not to do gift-giving and focus instead on spending time together," says Lacny.
Prioritizing applies to your finances, too. You can make do with last-year's Christmas party dress and the makeup that's already in your kit, and believe it or not, your kids don't need a brand-new outfit or shoes for Christmas Eve dinner at your in-laws' home. Scale back on the gift-giving, or the party-attending, or the vacation, or the expensive wines and cheeses or whatever it is that is not a priority for enjoying the holidays in your home.
Problem: Feeling overwhelmed and overbooked
You're expected to attend office parties, house parties, your kids' friends' parties (with gift exchanges, natch), dinners with friends, dinners with neighbours...and on and on. But on top of that, you have volunteer commitments, shopping to do, and a general sense that you're way overbooked.
Solution: Identify the things you truly want to do. Write them down if that will help. "Look at which parties are important for you and your family to attend and say no to the rest," says Lacny. Indeed, we've all heard the familiar advice to "learn how to say no," but the practice becomes much easier once you nail down what you intend to say yes to. The same goes for other commitments, like the endless gift and food shopping trips that herald the season—and stress people out. "Look for alternatives to make things easier. Start your shopping early, shop online, give gift certificates, make homemade gifts, suggest pulling names or make donations in lieu of gifts," she says.
Problem: Feeling grief or sadness when everyone is cheerful
The refrains of "Happy Holidays," "Merry Christmas," and "Happy New Year," can ring hollow if you're dealing with loss, grief, or sadness. The death of a loved one, a scary healthy diagnosis, a job loss, a breakup, seasonal affective disorder or other mood disorders, among many other tough life situations are so hard to manage anytime, but can be particularly heartbreaking and overwhelming during the holidays.
Solution: "Acknowledge your feelings and surround yourself with supportive people," says Lacny. Let those close to you know how you are feeling and help them understand what you may need, she adds. Cheer is one of the buzzwords of the holiday season; and it can leave you feeling disconnected when no amount of bedecked Christmas trees or dazzlingly wrapped presents or silly Santa hats lift your spirits. And that's ok. The holidays are widely understood to be a difficult time for many people, even though we may feel compelled to put on a happy face at parties and in public. So you're in good and plentiful company if you don't feeling the spirit of the season bubbling within you. Of course, don't hesitate to seek help from a healthcare professional if you need it.
If by luck you are on the other side of things, carefree and having a swell old time, remember that the holiday season is not a happy time for everyone, says Lacny. The best thing to do is to be respectful and helpful to friends and family going through difficulties, she says. Channel your energy and happiness as a tool to help: "Go out of your way," she says, "to do something nice for others." Which, fittingly, is what the holiday spirit is all about.