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'Tis The Season Of Stress: 10 Tips To Help You Cope

By Steve Schlozman, M.D. and Gene Beresin, M.D.
Guest Contributors

Imagine this fairly common holiday scene: You’re driving up and down the aisles in a very busy parking lot. There have been a few near misses, cars pulling out of briefly empty spaces, but there’s always someone waiting for that space, getting there just a second before you. Your car is a cacophony of seasonal torment: The pop music on the radio mercilessly full of holiday cheer, your little one in the car seat with a runny nose, your school-aged kid kicking the back of your seat and your teenager sitting with her legs on the dashboard while she sullenly tunes you out in favor of her iPod and its noise-cancelling earphones.

‘Tis the season...

Study after study shows us that the holidays are stressful for both parents and kids. (Like we needed a study?) People are cranky, irritable, rushed and unruly. All of us await the holidays with great anticipation and high expectations — family, fun, presents, togetherness. And these experiences are reinforced by the multitude of ads we all see on TV. Yet, for most of us, there are immeasurable stresses.

The stress can be about almost anything: the guests, the gifts, the recents divorces or deaths.

And people with psychiatric disorders often have an even harder time. Depression and substance abuse worsen, and suicide attempts appear to increase. Don’t misunderstand — the holidays are also wonderful, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we ignored the yearly misery that the holidays can potentially engender.

So, how do we navigate these frenzied days and stay on an even keel?

It turns out that there are some things we can do to manage the tough times, and though many of these things seem obvious, it’s their very obviousness that often causes us to forget. Here are 10 tips to remember:

1. Pace Yourself (if possible)

Adults and children rarely do well when they’re rushed. Kids detect the panicked demeanor of their parents, and parents then get irritable when their anxious kids act out. So, don’t do everything at once.

If you can, spread out the errands and ask your family members to help with the chores and preparations.

2. Pick Your Battles

The ever-present background frenzy means that most attempts at reprimand will be met with a greater than normal emotional response. If you tell that teenager to take her feet off the dashboard, you might get more than the average earful, and it might not be worth that level of discord. Save your angry moments for the times when things are really going south. Remember that emotions are always raw at the holidays.

3. Plan Some Fun

Shopping in a crazed mall with a zillion people all fighting for the latest toy stinks. Remember that you can also shop online, as well as enlist your family to help. Furthermore, some of the best movies come out around the holidays.

This is the time for incentives (read: gentle bribes). Your school-aged kid will be a lot more malleable if he gets a chance to laugh at a silly holiday flick or a seasonal puppet show. Local libraries arrange readings, schools have fairs — attend these activities with your kids. It’ll make the necessary shopping more palatable for all of you. And, try to play with each other at home! Playing board games or cards, watching old home videos, doing a crafts project, cooking a cool dessert, or singing together are activities never forgotten. These memories can last forever, whereas toys and other presents might lose their value over time.

4. Talk About The Tough Stuff

The economy has gotten better, but the holidays still remind families that luxuries they could afford five or ten years ago are sometimes no longer possible. Don’t let that issue go unrecognized. The kids are surely noticing what’s missing, but they may be imagining something much worse than the truth. In a way that makes sense for your child’s age, tell him or her that there is less money but that the same amount of fun, goodwill and love remains. Toddlers and younger children will especially be glad for this discussion — many young children interpret fewer toys as less love. That’s not spoiled behavior; it’s just the way kids think.

Helping them to remember that they are loved just as much will make a difference. But remember to talk to your kids in a way they can understand. Explaining economic problems to school-aged kids is different than explaining such matters to teens.

Adolescents have a greater understanding of the hardships of financial pressure, and will appreciate the extent to which you involve them in nuanced and sophisticated discussions.

5. Consider Alternative Ways Of Giving

While many see the holidays as a time to be excessive (eating, spending), maybe there are alternatives. If your family is experiencing economic hardship, try picking names out of a hat, and having each family member gives another ONE gift of a certain amount. This way there are fewer gifts, but perhaps greater consideration for each present given. This also keeps the meaning of giving front and center. The holidays may be better (and more memorably) spent sharing time together rather than spending too much on too many. Giving TIME is much more precious than giving GIFTS.

6. Be Aware Of Worsening Psychological Suffering

As we noted, psychiatric symptoms often worsen during the holidays. This makes sense — just as asthma worsens with dust, psychiatric symptoms worsen with stress. There is, however, an even more insidious stressor with the holidays. People hear nothing but messages that they are supposed to be happy. That message can make individuals with psychiatric conditions suffer even more if they are already not doing well. Help your loved ones to get the extra care they need, and don’t hesitate to call your doctor.Those calls can be life-changing and even life-saving.

7. Don't Forget Who Is Not There

Someone is always missing during the holidays. It may seem painful to bring up a lost one, or a family member who cannot make it home, but telling stories, watching old videos and looking at photos is always helpful in bringing the family together. Kids love to hear stories about family members — where they came from, what they did, what they’re doing now. Don’t forget that physical absence is not the same as emotional absence.

8. Don't Let The Ghosts Of Holidays Past Haunt You

Many people find the holidays to be incredibly stressful when they painfully recall holidays in the past. This is especially the case for families with old and not easily forgotten family conflicts. Adults might recall the bitter disputes between their parents, fights between parents and grandparents, or battles between parents and kids. Some families have individuals who experienced the holidays under traumatic situations involving domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse. In these circumstances, the holidays can come to carry an important and difficult reminder: the loss of an “ideal” family, or, at least, one that is peaceful and happy. Kids pick up on these memories like sponges. While painful memories cannot be erased, dwelling on past grievances without resolution is not likely to be productive. It’s far better to acknowledge the pain than to try and make life in the moment better for all.

9. Keep The Focus On Gratitude

Every year has its ups and downs. The holidays can be an important venue for reflecting on seminal moments in family and personal life and most importantly in relationships. It’s fitting that we traditionally sing "Auld Lang Syne" New Year’s Eve. This tune never fails to evoke nostalgia. Keeping the focus on gratitude — how grateful we are to be together regardless of the adversities or losses we have suffered — is resilience-building. There exists something precious in family conversations about the past, especially if we emphasize the gifts of being together in the here and now.

10. Don't Aim For Perfection

A sure formula for depression, demoralization and upset is setting standards too high for the holidays. No dinner is perfect; something breaks; someone triggers an old family fight. This is the normal course of things, and it’s beneficial to keep in mind that something will likely not go according to plan rather than letting it catch you off guard. Setting expectations too high for the holidays is certain to upset you and your kids — they already know that you’re stressed.

The holidays are not necessarily difficult, but they can be enormously trying. Don’t let the hustle and bustle ruin your time with family and friends. Slow it down. After all, it's only once a year.

Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Steve Schlozman is associate director of The Clay Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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