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Handling Holiday Stress

by Linda Wasmer Andrews

Home for the holidays
Getting ready for family gatherings that you know could prove stressful takes a different kind of preparation. Start by analyzing any negative relationship patterns. Take a hard look at the role you play in your family dynamic, including both the positive and negative aspects of that role. Let’s say you’re the youngest sibling. Even though you’re an adult now, you still fall back into the role of the baby of the family whenever you go to a parent’s or sibling’s home for the holidays. On the plus side, this brings you a lot of affection and attention, and other family members don’t expect as much from you. On the minus side, you feel they don’t take you seriously or treat you as an equal, either. If you feel you need to change this dynamic, you might offer to take a mature “grown-up” job, such as hosting the dinner. You also can watch for signs of backsliding into childish behavior.

While you’re in charge of your own behavior, there’s only so much you can do to influence the actions of others. Maybe you’re dreading the holidays because it’s become an annual tradition for one particular relative to dissect your lifestyle along with the turkey. You can try to avoid this person, and you can enlist others to steer the conversation onto safer ground. You can even suggest that this relative not be invited to certain family gatherings. Ultimately, though, you may find yourself outnumbered and on your own. If you anticipate that things might get sticky despite your best efforts, have a Plan B ready. Come in your own car so that you can leave when you want to, or, if you’re visiting from out of town, stay in a motel so that you have a haven to retreat to if necessary.

Take a break from overnight guests. Even when a family normally gets along, staying in close quarters for a few days can make anyone irritable. Find ways to give yourself — and everyone else — some breathing space. If you’re the host, make some time to be alone, even if it’s just to go to the grocery store or walk the dog. If you’re the guest, consider renting a car or taking a stroll so that you can get out from underfoot for a few hours. Also, don’t hesitate to take a break from socializing and pitch in with the cooking, cleaning, and child care. Chances are, your host needs all the help he or she can get.

Plan ahead for diabetes dilemmas. If questions about your health get too persistent or personal, be ready to redirect the conversation politely but firmly. If your host asks for guidance on what you can eat, be prepared to suggest a few simple ways that he or she can work around your diet without adjusting the whole menu. Offer to provide dishes you know you can eat, and be sure to bring along your own snacks, just in case. Since overindulging in food or alcohol can have a negative impact on your blood glucose levels that will only increase any distress you feel, you may want to meet with your health-care provider or registered dietitian for support and suggestions for sticking to your meal plan over the holidays.

Finally, don’t downplay real grief. If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you and your family may feel the loss especially intensely during the holiday get-togethers. Pretending that the grief doesn’t exist will only make things worse. Different people have different ways of coping with loss, however. Some choose to restructure their holiday experience, by doing something novel or traveling to a new location. Others take the opposite approach, displaying the missing loved one’s picture at traditional gatherings or making it a point to sing the person’s favorite song. There is no right or wrong way to handle grief. Do what feels right to you, and respect others’ ways of grieving as well.

Toward holiday cheer
While the holidays can sometimes be fraught with friction and sadness, they are also a time to celebrate loving connections and renew positive bonds. If your past holidays seem to have lost some of that quality, this is your chance to invent new rituals that are meaningful to you. Maybe you and your family members or guests could all go ice skating or watch a parade together. Or maybe each person could state one thing he or she is thankful for before diving into the turkey. The ritual can be as simple or elaborate as you like. The only rule is that it should inspire a sense of belonging and closeness.

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