The American Psychological Association, which is the professional organization for those who work in the field of psychology, maintains a web page called the “Holiday Stress Resource Center.” Gee, whatever happened to holiday joy? I’m sure the APA means well, and I’m sure that web page is useful for some people. But I also think “holiday stress” is something of a self-fulfilling cliché.If I know one thing about mental health, it’s that if you expect stress, you’re going to get it. So don’t expect stress. During the holidays, we reconnect with home and family. We love others and ourselves. The holidays are a time for boundless joy.
You’re entitled to some of that joy. These are my four rules for making sure you get it.
1. Manage Your Expectations
No holiday celebration is perfect, and expecting perfection is a short-cut to making yourself into a Santa-zilla. An overdone pie or a badly shaped Christmas tree is not the end of the world. In fact, with patience and resilience, you can view a holiday disaster as a resource for future holidays. “Remember the year of the flaming apple pie?” Sometimes mishaps even create new traditions: “We always wear ugly sweaters and galoshes at Christmas.”
2. Take Opportunities to Give of Yourself
Take a small part of the holiday season and use it to help others. Help hand out toys for the Salvation Army, distribute groceries at your local food bank, collect socks for an organization that cares for the homeless. There are many opportunities to help others, and I guarantee that taking advantage of one or more will double your holiday joy.
3. Don’t Let the Marketers Get You Down
During the limited window of the holidays, advertising professionals make it their goal to get you to max out your credit cards. They do this with beautifully crafted ads and commercials that appeal to some of your deepest emotions. When you see these ads, remember there’s a fine line that separates a joyous holiday for you and a joyous holiday for the ad agency that’s trying to manipulate you. Is that gift going to bring real joy to the recipient, or is it just going to deplete your savings and (momentarily) allay ad-driven guilt?
4. Take Care of Yourself
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and the right nutrition. Take your probiotics. And budget your energy expenditure. There can be strong pressure during the holidays to be everything for everybody. But your energy is not unlimited. Sometimes the tasks before you can seem overwhelming. But believe me, if you give in to panic, your tasks will only become more overwhelming. So when things look like they are beginning to pile up, stop and spend a little energy on yourself. Ask yourself if you can say "no" to something and remove it from your plate entirely. What can you ask someone to help you with? Often the simple act of asking for help can give us a stronger sense of control. Nature always wins so go for a walk in the woods or read a book or listen to music. Spending 15 minutes on yourself can revive and energize you and put all your tasks in perspective.
If you read lifestyle magazines and general-interest websites, you will notice that at this time of year, virtually all of them feature stories on holiday stress. That makes it look like you can’t escape holiday stress. I say you can escape. Avoid the holiday stress stories and see to your own needs.
For this year, I wish you the best in mental health and the most joyous holidays ever. Make my wish come true. Take possession of your holiday joy.
Cover art by Chad Wheeler, tattooist and resident artist @singleneedle