Dear friends – are you ready for yet another uniquely demanding holiday season? I'm definitely not. Last year the need for both safety and vigilance was pretty urgent. This year, with the Delta variant and Omicron rising, it's gotten even more complicated. Pack on top of that the usual holiday stress. Buying, wrapping, gifting and planning family events that often present their own unique challenges. And make sure to include your own personal challenges. Mine? A sick elder dog, a grumpy neighbor, a bear in the garbage can, crushing deadline work, family dramas, and how I look in the bedroom mirror at 7 a.m. I'm sure some of your challenges make mine look like a picnic in June. But whatever the degree of stress, we mere humans carry a lot of baggage into a season that's supposed to be brimming with peace, love, and good cheer.
Fortunately, one of my regular jobs puts me in contact with a group of highly trained and experienced experts on the topic of managing the challenges of being human rather than, say, being a dog who can find something to wag its tail about at the drop of a crumb. Or a cat who gets its own way nearly all of the time. I work in communications for an association of psychiatrists, and I asked one of my favorite docs about the dilemma many of us are facing. Shannon Suo, MD, is doubled-boarded in psychiatry and family medicine. Here are her practical tips on how mere mortals can manage holiday stress disorder decorated with a mutating, never-ending virus:
Me: How can people already under stress from the pandemic respond in healthy ways to the demands of the upcoming Holiday season?
Dr. Suo: Figure out what your limits are, and feel free to let others know. There's great power in saying "no," and people understand.
Me: How can people take care of themselves throughout the next several weeks?
Dr. Suo: Pay attention to what restores you; what "recharges" your battery? Being with people? Being by yourself? Listening to music? Exercising? Sleeping? What "drains" your battery? Do more of the first and limit what you do of the second. Again, feel free to say "no."
Me: Can I make other people happy when I don't feel so happy myself?
Dr. Suo: You can, and you might find that helping other people feel better makes you feel better yourself. Only extend yourself as far as you can reach without exhausting yourself. If you're draining your battery more than you're recharging, you're going to exhaust yourself.
Me: What actually is stress, and is it good or bad?
Dr. Suo: "Stress" is often self-defined. Merriam-Webster defines stress as "mental tension and worry caused by problems...something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety...physical force or pressure." If you think about the last one -"force or pressure" - stress can be productive. Many of us work better with a deadline, for example. Athletes and performers may choke under pressure or can perform better. Most of the time, we think of stress as bad, but stress is usually due to change, real or anticipated. And change is inevitable. Consider the Serenity Prayer: God (higher power or not, your choice), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference." Acceptance of change is one of the hardest things human beings can attempt, but it is the lack of acceptance that often causes mental tension and worry. Chronic stress or repeated incidents of acute stress have been shown to alter brain chemistry and lead to increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. So recognizing when one has the ability to change something for the better, for oneself, or for others is also critically important. Especially when making that change will relieve the "tension and worry" at least for a while or even permanently.
Me: Do you have suggestions on ways to handle difficult family relationships at get-togethers?
Dr. Suo: Set a time limit for how long you'll stay. Ask another friend or family member to help extricate you after a certain time or under certain circumstances. Use a code word or signal when you need help. Steer clear of hot topics if you know it's going to stir up emotions. Accept your family members for who they are, and don't expect them to change. If you can't accept them, don't engage with them or simply limit your interactions. This may involve making a tough choice between seeing family members you do enjoy spending time with, But don't set ultimatums and put those family members in the stressful position of having to choose between the two of you. Decline their invitation and let them know why if they ask. Have another family member who likes to stir the pot? Have a talk with them and ask them to back off; be honest about the effects that it has on you. Chances are they're not thinking about how their actions affect other people. Even if they're offended, knowing how it affects you (don't try to speak for other people) may give them pause or sink in later.
Okay – let me admit that I have already called on this advice on at least one occasion (that being the daily event in the mirror – where I'm confronted with the need to accept that change is inevitable and that I still am more attractive than an ostrich). I hope a snippet of Dr. Suo's advice is helpful to you as well.
Dear Readers – if you have any advice on handling holiday season stress disorder (a condition I just added to my list of complaints) – kindly pass along to me at email@example.com. And thanks to those of you who share my blog with friends - it's how I can continue to grow my subscriber list. I respect and appreciate all your help and input!
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