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Handling Holiday Stress

by Linda Wasmer Andrews

Often, overblown holiday expectations materialize in bloated gift lists. Gifts are meant to be trinkets symbolizing affection. In our consumer-oriented society, however, the tradition of gift-giving has been taken to excess. As a result, pre-holiday gift shopping — and post-holiday bill paying — have become dreadful ordeals for many people. One recent survey, which polled a random sample of 625 American employees, found that the most frequently cited sources of holiday stress or anxiety were shopping, lack of time to get everything done, and expenses.

The irony is that costly gifts frequently mean more to the giver than to the receiver. This is most obvious with children, who may be quite satisfied with one or two gifts, but who tend to become overwhelmed or demanding when given 20 new toys in one day. The truth is, everyone is apt to be overstimulated by the materialistic frenzy leading up to the holidays. For children and adults alike, the big buildup can lead to a huge letdown afterward.

Family follies
Visiting with relatives can be another major cause of holiday stress. Many folks spend the holidays with their extended family, hoping for an occasion of laughter, reminiscence, and reunion. But family gatherings can also bring out old resentments and anxieties, as people try to reconnect with family members they haven’t seen all year or cope with a perennially drunken or belligerent relative. Often, the same old conflicts or arguments are replayed year after year as predictably as It’s a Wonderful Life is replayed on television.

Every family seems to have an Uncle Phil who tells loud, off-color jokes, an Aunt Ethel who asks too many nosy questions, or a Cousin Lily who always gets drunk and weepy. People tend to cling to an unreasonable hope that their motley collection of relatives will somehow morph into a fantasy family — at least for one meal. When this transformation fails to happen, they may end up feeling cheated, exhausted, or believing that they have failed in some way.

For those who play host, any family tensions are compounded by the extra work and minor irritations that go along with having other people in their home. For the out-of-town guest, delayed flights and crowded highways are just the start. It can be hard to keep holiday spirits high while sleeping on an air mattress on someone else’s den floor, sharing a bathroom with six other people, and trying to adapt to a different schedule or to a different time zone.

Then there are the diabetes police — those well-meaning family members who can’t resist issuing dire warnings to stay away from the cookies. They only want to help, but their hovering concern can quickly start to feel oppressive, and their intimate health questions can begin to seem intrusive.

For some people, of course, the problem with holidays is not too much family life, but not enough. Loneliness and grief are felt particularly acutely at this time of year. When a loved one is missing, an empty seat at the table can be a painful reminder of good times shared in the past. Forcing an air of festivity and ignoring the loss for the sake of the occasion can create a sense of unreality that just makes things worse.

Holiday survival guide
Given the many pressures of the season, it’s easy to take Scrooge’s sour stance. Luckily, there are steps you can take to remedy the “bah, humbug!” bug. First, you need to identify the specific sources of stress in your past holidays. What led to the biggest headaches for you? Did you put off shopping for too long? Charge too much on your credit card? Travel a long distance for just a short visit? Get into a spat with your brother over whose turn it was to host the dinner? Feel jealous of all the attention your overachieving sister received? Now is the time to be brutally frank with yourself about such issues.

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