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Holiday Stress = Conflict: 12 Actionable Tips for Coping & Thriving

Holiday StressFeeling Anxious Yet?

Every year, the ritual of The Holidays delivers both positive and negative emotions. We’ve all been there. However, many of these emotions are culturally unacceptable to express: anxiety, dread, fear, stress, sadness, fatigue, anger, or even genuine happiness or excitement. Relationships, money, and increased workload can all contribute to the stress that we feel during this time of year.

Not surprisingly, I have observed clients in my mediation practice experience elevated levels of stress, fear, anxiety, and anger during this time of the year. Many people self-medicate as stress increases during this time with alcohol, nicotine, controlled substances, anti-depressants, caffeine, or food. The holidays can also exacerbate mental health issues.

If you or someone you know has been expressing suicidal thoughts, is in a domestic violence situation, or is struggling with substance abuse, please seek professional help immediately. The resources page includes links to many reputable non-profit and government agencies that are ready to help you, your friend, or loved one, 24/7.

Why We Feel Stressed

The unusual confluence of internal and external factors that are emotional, familial, and cultural combine during The Holidays in a way that is unlike any other time of the year. Let’s briefly look at the internal and external factors.

Internal Factor: Your Emotions

The Holidays can be among the most emotionally volatile times of the year, in part, because of the involuntary re-visiting of painful memories. Annually, you may be forced to remember upsetting and difficult emotions such as grief by coming face-to-face with the fact that certain people are no longer with you to celebrate.

Experiencing these emotions is important and healthy, but because you cannot alter when The Holidays appear on the calendar, you are not in control of when you want to process your feelings, and this can create great stress.

External Factor: Your Family

Your family and close friends are those with whom you have formed your kinship group bonds. When your needs, interests, values, and expectations are not aligned with the members of your closest kinship group, stress, and sometimes conflict, can erupt.

With The Holidays may come an expectation of interaction with your closest kinship groups. If the bonds between members of your group are generally strong, the holiday context can be a very exciting proposition and experience. On the other hand, if these bonds are weak or damaged, The Holidays can create absolute dread and misery.

If you run a family business, this time of the year can be particularly difficult emotionally. By combining money with family, the conflict can be overwhelming. The Holidays are an important sales season for many businesses, and is often the busiest time of the year for those dealing in consumer goods. Family business owners often feel guilty during The Holidays for not spending more time with their families.

External Factor: Cultural Expectations

Cultural expectations of forced harmony when people do not genuinely want it, need it, or are interested in it, can be problematic. The forced harmony expected during The Holidays can be especially uncomfortable if kindness and respect has not been demonstrated within close kinship groups throughout the year. People tend to embrace harmony when it is voluntarily sought out, not imposed.

The stigma of discussing stress or conflict during this time compounds the problem. Media images of holiday misery are generally not the “high standard” of conduct or belief. With artificial and inflated visions of how we should feel during this time, it is not surprising that people can easily begin engaging in a comparison or judgment game which fuels feelings of inadequacy and sadness.

External Factor: Your Environment

Reduced natural light during the fall and winter months affects most people. The end of daylight savings time coincides with the shortening of the days and the natural human response to slow down and store more energy. It seems that the holiday season occurs at a most inopportune time for humans.

On the other hand, many other animals use the fall and winter months as a time to reduce their activity, and some even hibernate from late fall to early spring in order to conserve energy and resources and wait until environmental conditions improve before they become more active.

In the U.S., the most active period of the year for celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, are aligned with the harshest environmental conditions: it is generally cold, dark, and wet. Perhaps the reason why we feel so much stress is because we are not aligning our biological rhythms to the time when we naturally want to hunker down.

Going against our biological rhythms creates stress, which can more easily trigger conflict. Remember the last time you were grumpy, or downright mean, to a spouse, co-worker, or friend just because you were hungry?

Holiday Stress: 12 Conflict Management Tips

You can manage holiday stress on two fronts. First, you can manage your self. Second, you can manage your environment and your interactions with others. Here are some effective actionable strategies you can try now:

Managing Yourself

1)    Practice Anger Diffusion in 3 Steps

  • Breathe
    • Create a buffer of space, even a second can help, between the trigger and your response so you can think clearly and prevent saying or doing things that you know you will regret later.
    • Observe your emotions
  • Identify the trigger that sparked the anger
  • Choose how you will handle the trigger
    • For instance, you can consciously choose not to engage further in a discussion with a parent or child who just said something hurtful. Or, you can consciously choose to stop an anxious thought from spinning out of control.

2)    Ramp up self-care

  • Practice meditation and activities that are relaxing or personally enriching to you:
    • e.g., enjoying a book, getting a massage, participating in a sport or hobby you normally put off, or volunteering. Remember, self-care is not self-indulgence: you can be more present for others if you can take care of your basic self-care needs first.
  • Delegate more and try to scale back if possible
  • Get back to basics: good sleep, nutrition, stress management, and exercise
    • Having a strong foundation in self-care during the holidays can go far to provide the buffer you need to handle the unavoidable and inevitable stressors.
    • For instance, don’t stop your workout routine just because of holiday demands. And make sure to get the amount of quality sleep you need to feel well rested.
  • If The Holidays are your busy work season, prepare beforehand as much as possible—block out bookends of time before and after the busy season to cope with the elevated activity.

3)    Discuss your anxieties with a trusted individual

4)    Limit or minimize exposure to media (take a news/TV/social media break)

5)    Seek professional help if you feel you need it or if trusted family/friends are urging you to consider help

6)    Relax or discard expectations for what you and others can or could accomplish

Managing Your Interactions with Others

 

7)    Release Control

  • Remember that generally you cannot control or change others’ behavior

8)    Understand Kinship Group Stressors

  • Try to understand better the unique dynamics of your particular kinship group stressors
  • For instance, if one of your parents is a widow or widower, recognizing how grief plays a role in holiday stress can help you put it in perspective.

9)    Limit Triggers

  • Try to limit contact with triggers during particularly volatile times
  • For instance, if you have a parent, in-law, sibling or friend who you know triggers a response that makes you feel overwhelmed or out of control—try to avoid constant contact at this time. Avoid putting yourself in situations where you know you cannot physically leave.

10)    Bow Out

  • If the holidays are applying too much pressure and you need, or want, time to restore or heal yourself, recognize that you do not have to participate every time. Perhaps shifting the holiday to another’s house or doing something completely different or unique that works for you and your closest kinship group can break the cycle of stress and misery.
  • Close kinship groups may seriously panic, or go “nuclear”, at the thought of doing anything new or different during The Holidays (partly because you are threatening the stability of the status quo). But if you express your needs clearly, and learn to be comfortable with them (e.g., perhaps with the help of a support network), you can take back the control you need to enjoy this time of the year better.

11)    Practice Empathy

  • Put yourself in their shoes, really listen, and try to understand their point of view. Think about what the needs and interests of others might be and perhaps put them in context with underlying issues that are triggering conflict (e.g., pre-existing brain injury, alcohol/substance/sexual/physical/psychological abuse, grief, unemployment)
  • If you better understand the underlying causes of another’s conflict, this knowledge can help you choose how you want to cope with it
  • Practicing empathy can also help you create real win-win solutions. For instance, if a friend insists that you be present for a holiday get-together, perhaps you can appear virtually on Facetime for a few minutes when the entire group gathers at the table momentarily. There is no perfect substitute for being physically present, but such a solution can at least provide a middle ground where both generally get most of what they need: you get your need for space and your friend gets her need for connection.

12)    Communicate Clearly

  • Avoid ambiguity with your intentions and communication by clearly expressing your needs. Sometimes you need to repeat your needs more than once. But if you can make your needs clear to others, this can help avoid misunderstandings.
  • When you do spend time with people, be absolutely present. Avoid checking email, tweeting, working, etc. while spending time with others. The quality of your relationships will improve dramatically with focused engagement.

 

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