Tips for overcoming holiday anxiety and stress.

It was only after chatting with my friend Andisiwe that I first decided to take the path of Christmas posting but not for reasons one may think. I decided to take a healthy approach to Christmas not just physically through workouts and nutrition but also for the psychology of it all.

I realized that Christmas is different for every race. Having only experienced Christmas from essentially two race and culture points I am going to limit myself to that instead of the other. I come from an African family, but a mixed one at that. Combination of white, black and coloured alike. Essentially, I’ve only ever had Christian Christmases but being from a diversified family both immediate and extended I have come to experience Christmas in multiple ways.

Some Christmases were spent visiting the full African part of the family where it’s sort of an Africanized version of the traditional Christmas where the family gathers, and presents are there but father Christmas was really a tool to keep kids in line, so they can receive their presents and they only care about father Christmas once a year. The idea of it being the birth of Jesus really didn’t factor into it and even at African church services it was more about the spirit of giving and the lords love for the world than it is about the standard story of Jesus etc.

Come to think of it, I really wasn’t aware or actively engaged in the Jesus part of Christmas until around grades 3 onwards before that it was all about father Christmas. I figure it was that normal transition period when your intelligence starts to figure out that the science behind Santa is fundamentally flawed. I found that in most African families at the time (My network of family and friends) it was a common transition period. Things like the tooth fairy where something we watched on tv and never really participated in, Halloween was also one of those things.

But I digress. My focus is on Christmas. There has always been this pressure over the Christmas period, where it either the idea of getting the family together and doing the “family thing” or buying enough presents without bankrupting yourself 3 months into the next year.  I found it to be a particularly stressing period among my family growing up and there seemed to be a focus on who can host the biggest and best gatherings even if it meant enduring the discomfort of that one aunt or uncle who just won’t stop getting on your nerves.

So which is why I personally believe, the biggest source of holiday stress is family both positively and negatively — the family dinner, the obligations, and the burden of family tradition. And if you’re fighting clinical depression, or have had depression in the past, the holiday stress can be a trigger for more serious problems. There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free. That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that’s doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.

What Causes Holiday Stress?

First, ask yourself this: What about the holidays gets you down? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly. For many people, holiday stress is triggered by:

  • Unhappy memories. Going home for the holidays naturally makes people remember old times, but for you the memories may be more bitter than sweet. During the holidays, a lot of childhood memories come back, you may find yourself dwelling on what was inadequate about your childhood and what was missing. If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life – the loss of a loved one, a previous depression, this time of year will naturally bring those memories back.
  • Toxic relatives. Holidays can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. People struggling with depression may face stigma, too. Some relatives may not really believe you’re depressed, they may think you’re just lazy, or that it’s all in your head. It can be hurtful.
  • What’s changed. The holidays can highlight everything that’s changed in your lives a divorce, a death in the family, a son who’s making his first trip back home after starting university. Any of these can really unsettle a gathering and add holiday stress.
  • What’s stayed the same. For others, it’s the monotonous sameness of family holiday gatherings that depresses them the same faces, the same jokes, the same food on the same china plates.
  • Lowered defenses. During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by obligations and errands. It’s the hot and rainy season (In South Africa) and your immune system is under assault. It’s getting dark later each day. You’re eating worse, sleeping less, and drinking more. By the time the family gathering rolls around, you’re worn out, tense, and fragile. The holiday stress makes it harder to cope with your family than it might be at other times of the year.

Changing Your Outlook

One of the things you can do to overcome these hurdles is to change your outlook. This is meant to challenge some of your assumptions. If you enjoyed the holidays differently this year, what would happen? What if you didn’t go to your aunts for dinner?

Your gut feeling might be: Calamity! Disaster! But get past that initial reaction. Think about what would really happen. Maybe your aunt would be annoyed. Is that really such a big deal? Could you make it up to her later with a brunch in February?

The key is to be conscious about what you’re doing. This holiday season, don’t unthinkingly do things the same way just because that’s how you always do them. If the old holiday traditions aren’t working, if they’re not making you happy and causing holiday stress, it’s time to do something different.

This may be a heavy read for some, but I am going to keep it short at this point, I write this as a small suggestion, that could have a great impact. I understand Christmas is a time designed to be festive and positive, but the reality is, that it is not always the same for all of us, and its important we don’t neglect our mental and emotional health for the sake of Christmas time, because life doesn’t simply pause before and restart after Christmas.