Back to Basics

Tis the season for holiday cheer.  The season for hope, joy and peace.  The season for merriment among family and friends.   It truly can be the most wonderful time of the year.

On the other side of this beautiful, brilliantly shiny coin is holiday stress.  In our efforts to ensure that all this cheer does indeed arrive in good time and in good measure, we bring stress upon ourselves.  We don’t really mean to, it typically arrives as a normal by-product of all this preparing, shopping, sending cards, baking, cooking, cleaning, planning and attending parties, and generally placing pressure on ourselves to over-achieve to a standard that no one—except ourselves—holds us to.

Yet we do it.  Year after year.  It brings us joy—mostly.

Except when it doesn’t.  I hope you are in the group that experiences nothing but sheer joy, with little or no noticeable stress.  If you are not in that small group, then keep reading.  Perhaps the following can take away even a little bit of stress.

Because stress, as we all know, is the enemy of good health.

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Most of us—myself included—have been known to neglect the most valuable, most foundational steps that must be taken before anything else can be expected to work right.  Most of us tend to forget that the building blocks of health are quite simple, and can be improved—at least a little bit—for most of us.

A friend of mine recently lost a family member to cancer.  She said their family had attended grief support groups, which have been invaluable and life-saving for them, and for many bereaved people.  She made the comment that the group leader reminded them of some very simple, yet frequently overlooked steps that should be taken if one is to attempt to rebuild their lives after a loved one dies.  It seemed she and her family had forgotten about these basics.

Many of those same simple steps are the same ones we should take to avoid holiday stress.  Just like in times of grief, we may overlook the most basic tools we have in our hands to make ourselves feel better.

The simple steps are as follows:

  • Get enough sleep.  If it is hard to sleep, go to bed early, practice relaxation, take naps and don’t apologize for sleeping.  The caveat to this is that if you find yourself sleeping too much, you may be more tired and/or depressed.  Please be aware of that sign, and act accordingly.
  • Drink enough water.  As a medical professional, I frequently recommend increased water intake.  “Enough” is defined as half of your body weight in ounces daily.  Anything closer to this than where you are now is considered progress.  The only exception to this is if you have been advised by your doctor the limit fluids.
  • Stay connected to other people.  The power of human interaction cannot be denied.  We are wired to be social, and while this may sound contradictory, those holiday gatherings should be enjoyed primarily as precious time together, not an occasion to stress about unimportant details. If, however excess contact brings you excess stress, you likely know when you need to be alone.
  • Practice moderation.  Denying yourself delicious foods can be counteractive, just as overindulgence can.  Beating yourself up with guild after indulgence never does any good.  Just pick yourself up and start over.   Somewhere in the middle is always the best place.
  • Move your body.  There has never been a study that denied the benefits of moderate exercise.  A simple walk, a yoga class, a workout at the gym or a run in the brisk winter weather is good medicine.  It has been said many times that if the benefits of exercise could be bottled and sold, it would fly off the shelves.  Taking the time and making the effort are indeed more difficult than swallowing a pill, but the payoffs are worth it in the end—and sometimes even during!
  • Examine your expectations.  If you are placing unrealistic expectations on yourself to throw the perfect party, send out the perfect cards with the perfect pictures, buy the perfect gifts, prepare the perfect foods…you will likely come up short.  In most cases, you are the one placing the most pressure on yourself to achieve these expectations, so you are the one who can change them.  If anyone complains, enlist their help.
  • Anticipate that stress is not completely unavoidable, and plan accordingly.  Schedule an hour in between activities for a nap, or some other relaxing activity.*Make a list of what brings you the deepest joy.  If any of the stress-inducing activities do not support the things on your list, consider letting them go.  It’s not worth the stress you associate with them if they don’t make you happy.
  • Be aware that the shorter amounts of daylight and/or gray days can legitimately bring us down.  Seasonal Affective Disorder –SAD—is a very real thing.  If you think you may be affected by this, try to get outside during the day if the sun is shining, consider getting light exposure through a light box, which your doctor can tell you about.  Be sure to contact your physician if you feel you are suffering from this lack of light exposure in the winter.
  • If you typically have conflicts with family members during the holidays anticipate that more will be likely.  Resolve not to attempt to resolve them in the presence of the entire family during this time which is supposed to be joyous.   If these difficulties arise, consider simply stating:  “Let’s take care of this another time.”
  • Your gift-giving habits/gift wrapping do not have to be on par or exceed anyone else’s.  It is not a contest.  You can give yourself permission to choose not to give someone a gift, even if they gave you one.  Some people choose to give more material gifts than others.
  • Don’t forget intangible gifts.  Spending time with someone is one of the greatest gifts we can give.  Take someone to dinner, or cook for them.  Ask them out to a movie or concert.   Offer to babysit for someone’s children or care for elders they care for so they can have time out.  Offer an apology.  Forgive someone.  Forgiveness comes with a bonus:  it benefits you more in the end.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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We celebrate the holidays because they are meant to bring us joy, and often times, they do.  Sometimes, though, when they don’t, we lose sight of how we can go back and start over by thinking about what we can do differently.

Stress, as we all should be aware of by now, can adversely affect our health.  It increases blood pressure and decreases our self-care abilities.  Our bodies respond in many negative ways.  If we don’t harness the stress and it persists, the patterns continue, and the bottom line is that our health is compromised.  Most doctors will inquire as to your stress levels to determine how it impacts your health, because they know how it can negatively impact your health.

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Happy Holidays.  Enjoy the celebrations, and don’t let them overwhelm you.   Take care of yourself, and most of the other details will take care of themselves.  Be kind to yourself this holiday season.  You deserve it.  It’s the most basic gift you can give yourself, so that you can give the gift of joy to others this holiday season.