PeaceHealth Southwest doctor offers tips on dealing with holiday stress

Realizing that reality is full of imperfections can be a key to keeping your Christmas spirit

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Also, one of the most stressful.

The run-up to the Christmas holiday is full of happy songs, good cheer, bright lights, high expectations, financial burden, and family stress.

The holidays can be a time of great joy, but also plenty of stress. A PeaceHealth Southwest doctor has some tips on keeping your sanity. Image courtesy PeaceHealth Southwest
The holidays can be a time of great joy, but also plenty of stress. A PeaceHealth Southwest doctor has some tips on keeping your sanity. Image courtesy PeaceHealth Southwest

The American Psychological Association conducted a poll on the matter and found that 38 percent of people who say their stress levels increase “significantly” during the Christmas holiday season. More than half said they felt significant financial strain from the holiday.

Dr. Michael Bernstein is medical director for behavioral services at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Group. Image courtesy PeaceHealth Southwest
Dr. Michael Bernstein is medical director for behavioral services at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Group. Image courtesy PeaceHealth Southwest

There are positive elements as well. The vast majority said the holiday also includes feelings of love, charity, and joy.

But it’s clear that finding a way to properly manage the stress of the holidays is a key to having a Christmas that is merry and bright, versus one that is expensive and stressful.

Dr. Michael Bernstein, medical director for behavioral services at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center says managing expectations is one major key.

“Social expectations come from others or, more powerfully, from inside ourselves,” he says. “Common expectations are to create the perfect holiday meal or buy the perfect gift.  Holding ourselves to these impossible goals creates anxiety, but we have some control over them. First, be realistic: the holidays don’t have to be perfect to be fun and rewarding.  Use humor to deal with imperfections: a dropped platter or an overdone turkey.”

While festive dinners and picture perfect houses are one source of stress, the biggest may be the financial obligations of gift-giving.

“Be realistic about gift-giving and stick to a budget,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Ignore the temptation to overspend for holiday sales. Your discipline will pay off with reduced stress when the credit card bill comes due after the holidays.  People tend to appreciate gifts that are thoughtful more than expensive.”

As if getting the perfect gift isn’t stressful enough, there is also the gatherings of friends and family that can create a different kind of tension.

“Family get-togethers are a time of happy reunion but can also stir up old conflicts,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Try to accept family members and friends as they are.  Don’t try to use the time to resolve any ongoing issues. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes wrong. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress too.”

Another stressor can be the family members who are not present, says Dr. Bernstein. 

“For many people, the holidays are a reminder that some loved ones are no longer here,” he says. “Acknowledge your feelings and understand that it’s normal to feel some sadness and loss.  You don’t have to be constantly happy just because it’s the holiday season.”

Dr. Bernstein says it can be helpful to seek out community events, or religious and social functions to help stave off loneliness and isolation during the holiday season. Volunteering can also help to lift up others and, by extension, raise your own spirits and potentially build new friendships.

A few other tips including being realistic with your time during the holidays. Try not to fill every moment of the calendar with gatherings, social functions, or preparations for the holiday.

“Allow some down time for yourself,” says Dr. Bernstein. “Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do.  Keep up healthy habits such as taking a walk and not overindulging in heavy food and alcohol.”

Finally, he says, is taking time to remind yourself of the most important priorities of the holiday season: appreciating family and friends, taking time to connect with people you haven’t seen in a while, and accepting that imperfections can sometimes lead to new traditions or fun, if you’re willing to laugh about them and enjoy things.

From all of us at Clark County Today, Merry Christmas and a happy, stress-free New Year.

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