The first of a two-part series in surviving the holidays with your emotional health intact. Read part two here.
Though children greet the holidays with gleeful anticipation, many grownups default to dread and loathing. It can be the unhealthiest and unhappiest time of the year, but it doesn’t have to be.
In this series of columns, I'll share practical tips to care for ourselves during the holidays — to maintain health in the face of the temptations of big meals, treats and alcohol — and manage the challenges of our relationships and mixed emotions in an often bittersweet time of the year.
Today, let’s prepare ourselves for the stress of the season. December can be jam-packed with parties, dinners and school concerts, long waits in lineups and parking lots, and endless spending.
Two keys to managing stress are acceptance and choice.
There are some aspects in our lives that we can’t change (our age and stage of life, our relatives). We just have to accept them. The alternative is to complain about them and that just makes us feel worse.
But if we look, we will recognize where we do have choice. If you are the traditional big doer, connector and go-getter of your family and social circle and feel burnt out before each Christmas Day arrives, consider lowering your standards. You don’t have to do it all. Do what you can. Do what matters most to you.
Maybe you could have tweeted this to the rest of the family last year, but it’s not too late to lower their expectations, delegate and share the wealth of holiday preparations.
If you are a typical husband and dad, kid who is old enough to help out or any other adult who is used to just showing up for the food and fun, pitch in and show your appreciation for the real Santa in your life. We will all be happier in the end.
We all need a little therapy at some point in our lives and every adult who is already cynical about the season needs some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) right now to avoid becoming a Grinch by New Year’s Eve.
A key concept of CBT is that not only do our feelings influence our thoughts and actions, but our thoughts and actions can transform our feelings. By choosing more adaptive thoughts and actions, we can be happier. We don’t have to be victims of circumstance. We have a choice.
Choose actions that bring you happiness and peace.
To get in the spirit, I watch my favourite Christmas movies — the ones that I’ve watched with my kids as they grew up — Elf, Santa Clause 2, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol (both the Disney and Alistair Sims versions).
I put up the tree early because the older I get, the faster the season passes. Each ornament connects me to the timeless feelings of family Christmases past. I’ve started playing my favourite Christmas CDs and I’ll still be enjoying them while I’m caught in holiday traffic jams. How can you be grumpy while listening to the Chipmunks Christmas song or Elvis’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?”
Think about eggnog so you’ll remember to recognize “neg cogs.” These are the negative cognitions or thoughts that just make us feel grumpier about the holidays.
Here are some traditional examples:
- “I’m sick of all the commercialized Christmas music and decorations. They come out earlier each year to make us spend ourselves into debt.”
- “I’m dreading those endless family dinners with my insufferable uncle, my in-laws and siblings. Same bad habits, same old fights.”
- “This too shall pass. I just have to have a drink, find a couch, fall asleep and wake up when it’s all over.”
Remember negative thoughts can pop up especially when we’re stressed. You are not responsible for their appearance, but you can choose positive thoughts that make you feel (and behave) better.
Here are some to challenge the neg cogs:
- This is the one time of the year that the world celebrates. If you can’t beat them, you may as well sing along. When else do strangers — and co-workers who don’t even get along most of the time — wish one another happy holidays with their loved ones?
- This time with your family is not so insufferable when you think about a time in the future without any of these special people.
- This time passes too quickly. Slow down and enjoy the moments that matter most to you.
Remember the meaning of the season to you — the reaffirmation of your faith, the hope for peace on earth and the gift of each relationship in your life.
Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.