The “No Bullsh**” Guide For Getting Through The Holiday Season

Ahhh yes, the television commercials convey cheerfulness and joy with the contrived images of gift giving and preparing for a massive holiday feast, but the reality is that people probably identify more with Ebenezer Scrooge than Martha Stewart.  If a part of you feels too guilty and ashamed to admit that you’re not filled with holiday glee, then consider the following questions:

  • Do you want to roll your eyes when asked how excited you are about spending the holidays with your in-laws?
  • Do you feel obligated and forced to buy gifts for everyone?
  • Have you lost loved ones and the holidays serves as a reminder that they’re not present to celebrate with you and the family?
  • Did you recently go through a divorce or breakup and feel even lonelier now that you have nobody to drag to holiday parties or kiss on New Year’s Eve?
  • Are you struggling financially and can’t afford much of anything except to spend a quiet, typical night at home?
  • Are you trying to stay sober and the holidays tend to trigger using again?
  • Do the holidays cause more anxiety and depression because you’re expected to be happy even though you’re really not?
  • Do you hate dealing with annoying crowds of shoppers trying to get those last minute gifts?
  • Do you beat yourself up for waiting until the last minute to buy gifts (and then tell yourself that you’ll get all your Xmas shopping done early next year, yet repeat the same pattern.  I’m raising my hand for this one)?
  • Have you been good about diet and exercise, but worry that Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/”insert celebrated holiday here” and New Year’s will test your discipline and make you gain all the weight you’ve worked so hard to lose?
  • Would you much rather say “screw it” and purchase an extravagant gift for yourself instead of trying to find the perfect gift for everyone else?

If you answered yes to any of the questions, then you’re definitely not alone.  The above questions are just a few of the common issues that I heard from my patients and friends within the last few weeks.  I’d say that the majority of my patients and people that I know perceive the holidays as far more stressful than joyful.  I recall the holidays being so much fun as a child due to getting time off from school, receiving Christmas presents, building sticky gingerbread houses that were actually made of graham crackers, and going on trips with the family, but the holidays are definitely not as fun when you’re the adult responsible for planning the festivities.  If you are one who tends to struggle during the holidays, then the following are a few tips to help you get through the next few weeks until New Year’s Eve is over (then you at least have some time to breathe until Valentine’s Day comes around):

1. Set boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  If you’re a “Yes Man/Woman” (someone who always says “yes” and has a hard time saying “no”), then you not only have to deal with the stress of planning for the holiday, but also the overwhelming pressure to please everyone since you’re the reliable person whom everyone depends on (or the schmuck whom everyone takes advantage of), which leads to internal feelings of guilt, exhaustion, anger, and resentment if you can’t carry out all the duties expected of you, but then blame everyone else for not helping you (you probably also don’t feel comfortable asking for or accepting help, right?).

If you fit some components of the description above, here are a few ideas to try:

  • Talk to your therapist (and if you don’t have one, you might want to consider getting one because your issues with setting boundaries probably aren’t limited to the holiday season).
  • Use the Yes/No Method.

2. Don’t overexert yourself if you don’t want to attend so many holiday gatherings.  As mentioned in #1, the key is learning to say “no.”  Weigh the risk/benefit of attending each event, and attend the ones where the benefit outweighs the risk (ie, attending your boss’ holiday gathering may have more benefit than attending a coworker’s potluck dinner/white elephant gift exchange).  And if for some reason you actually have to attend a party that you can’t get out of, then stay for a bit and come up with an exit plan (I used to make up excuses such as “I promised to dog-sit for a friend” or that I’m not feeling well, but now tell the truth because I find that people are generally pretty understanding or can tell when you’re lying).

3. If you know you’re going to eat a feast and have a hard time avoiding all the amazing holiday desserts and egg nog, then plan ahead yet also be realistic.  Stressing out about your exercise regimen and what you’re going to eat causes even more stress. Weight gain and disease is not caused by one or a few days of eating unhealthy during the holiday, but rather the trajectory of your lifestyle choices over time.  If you eat a lot during Christmas dinner, then utilize those carbs with a good workout the following day, or plan on making healthier food choices thereafter.  It’s truly better to move on after a day of indulgence rather than perseverating on the guilt (trust me, it took me over a year of living with my brother, who is a personal trainer/unofficial psychotherapist, for me to get over the guilt of eating unhealthy a few days at a time).

Here’s another article that might be useful for managing your diet/fitness goals during the holidays.

4.  Make sure you set up appointments with your therapist or psychiatrist during the holiday for preventative measures.  Although many health professionals are away on vacation during the holiday, plan ahead by setting an appointment before your therapist or psychiatrist leaves to make sure you have enough med refills or to check-in for support and maintenance.  There should be coverage in case any urgent issues arise while they’re away, so make sure you have the contact information handy.  And, of course, if safety becomes a concern, then call 911.

5. If you have a known seasonal component to your mood, put into action what has typically helped your mood to get you through the year (med and non-med approaches).  I wrote a previous post on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and another post on how to cope with Summer seasonal depression, though the general principles apply to Winter seasonal depression as well.

6. Plan on staying sober during the holidays.  Similar to #4 above, I always ask my patients if they’ll need a follow-up appointment with me during the holiday season to check-in and provide additional support to maintain sobriety.  The holidays can be quite triggering for relapse, especially if everyone around you is inebriated by the plentiful cocktails, champagne, and spiked egg nog.  The following resources provide great tips for getting through the holidays sober:

7.  Coping with grief.  I found this post quite informative for the bereaved during the holiday.  One tip that I found most valuable was the importance of surrounding yourself with those who support you the most rather than undergo the exhaustion of trying to suppress your grief and sadness at numerous social gatherings.

8. Treat yo self.  Okay, I admit it — the first few items I bought while Christmas shopping were for myself, but I couldn’t help it!  It’s far more anxiety-provoking trying to come up with which item to buy for someone else than it is for myself (I mean, at least I know that I’ll appreciate what I bought for myself, whereas I have to risk feeling butthurt (this word is actually in the dictionary) if someone returns an item that I bought for them).  To some degree, buying myself a gift is a form of stress relief in addition to a reward for getting through the entire year.  And if buying something for yourself is not within budget, then deduct the cost from the gift you planned to buy the person you like the least.

If you have any other tips to cope with the stress of the holiday season, would love to hear from you! And rather than saying the generic “have a happy holiday,” I’ll end this post by saying “Hope your holiday is low-stress and may you enjoy (or tolerate) the season as much as you possibly can.” 🙂


Photo by Marlon Santos

9 thoughts on “The “No Bullsh**” Guide For Getting Through The Holiday Season

  1. Pingback: a little *NSYNC song that may just comfort you during a lonely holiday season

  2. Such a helpful post! This is my first holiday alone in a many years. I know I’ll be lonely and sad. Rather than hiding that fact, I am asking people to check in with me and invite me to things (even if I say no).

    • Hi Maggie! thanks so much for sharing. There’s so many expectations put on ourselves during the holidays, so i’m glad you’re looking out for yourself by having others check in and invite you. So many people are afraid to ask for help, so you’re setting a wonderful example for others 🙂 The holidays will be over soon enough.

  3. Pingback: Expert advice to conquer holiday stress – watercress words

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