Just a few days after Halloween I took our little dog, Mika, for a walk after dark. Strolling down the sidewalk I noticed that the orange lights, inflatable goblins, and spiderwebs draped across front porches had been replaced with twinkly white lights and inflatable Santas. Seriously? We were barely into November and the homes around us were already decked out like Christmas was just around the corner.
An unexpected wave of sadness came over me. Tears welled up as I was reminded of the pressures, stress, and shameful thoughts that begin to crowd my mind during the holidays. Seeing Christmas decorations on houses and in every store triggers a cascade of emotions from discouragement to dread.
After my recovery from major depression nearly ten years ago, the holidays have become stress x10 for me. You probably think I’m being too dramatic but this is how my brain works when I think about surviving Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It’s the only time of the year when there are more expectations, more decisions to be made, and more demands on limited energy.
A few days ago I told my husband that I’m already feeling anxious even though it’s only mid-November. He suggested that I write down everything that needs to be done between now and Christmas. Then we’d sit down together and decide what’s most important to us, what we can do together, and what we can eliminate or at least cut back on. We’re even going to put dates on the calendar when we’ll do things like hanging the outdoor lights.
I think one of the best things we can do to stay mentally healthy is to be proactive in managing the big things in our lives, like Christmas, instead of letting those things control us. My usual approach to the holidays is to ride the waves of anxiety, gritting my teeth until I get through it. I let myself get all out of sorts mentally and physically when caring for myself should really be my number one priority.
How do we realistically do that when we’re already feeling overwhelmed? Like my husband suggested, I think it helps to get our thoughts and feelings down on paper. Things become more concrete when we can actually see the words rather than letting them spin around in our mind and cause distress.
If we know a triggering event is coming up, we can plan ahead for what we’ll do to reduce the odds of becoming anxious and stressed out. Some people are troubled by having too little to do instead of too much during the holidays. Planning ahead will help them know what to do when they’re lonely, and what not to do, like isolating or using alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.
Several things I’m going to try this year include asking for help and sharing my thoughts and feelings instead of bottling them up inside. I’m going to do my best to lower my expectations and reduce the pressure I put on myself to make the holidays perfect. As I look over my list of holiday to-do’s, I intend to cross off anything that would be nice but not necessary to make the holidays enjoyable.
I think it would also be helpful to identify my assumptions about this time of year. For instance, I just assume I’ll send out Christmas cards every year because it’s something I always do. I believe that friends and family expect to hear from us as well. A better alternative would be to ask myself if sending cards is absolutely necessary. Is everyone expecting a card from us? Probably not. Will they think less of me if they don’t receive one? Since I have no way of knowing what people think then why be concerned?
Why does every part of the holiday season have to be perfect when “good enough” will do? I think about how much happier I’d be if I stopped comparing myself to others or worrying about what other people think.
Breaking down an overwhelming situation into manageable pieces makes it easier to choose what’s most important to us during the holidays. If we make caring for ourselves one of those important priorities, we’re better able to focus our time and energy on the people and activities that are most meaningful.
I wish all of you a blessed Christmas and may the gift of God’s peace be yours throughout this holiday season.