Mind Matters — Help with Holidays

Sure, sure, sure, I have written about holiday stressors many times before. However, just as holidays return every year, it can’t hurt to revisit some of the stresses they conjure and also what might help to allay those stresses. It’s sort of like old recipes—we know them, but we forget them and so we need to go back to the cookbook or the spilled-on index card from a beloved ancestor to rekindle our memory.

For starters, there is the stress of travel. If we travel for Thanksgiving, it doesn’t matter if it is by plane, or train, or auto. There probably will be stress. Traffic can be horrendous. Just knowing that can be helpful. When we can, at some level, accept the “it is, what it is,” we have taken the first step to emotional regulation.

Would that the stress of travel were the end of it. Holidays bring to the surface all sorts of buried hurts. Meanwhile, the media and merchandise mythology has it that we are all smiles in our matching pajamas.

Not all of us have fond memories of childhood. Some remember parents fighting at Christmastime, or dad’s drunken fit when he knocked down the Christmas tree. Others many remember when a mother would try to do it all, and end up sick in bed. If there have been family cutoffs where factions of the family are not speaking to each other, holidays make the divide all the more apparent. The old festering angers don’t go away with the smell of cinnamon or pine boughs.

Sadness and grief are not erased during holidays either. In fact, the festivities of the holidays put grief in sharp relief. New losses of someone close are the most difficult. However, even years later, the loss of a spouse or a parent or a child or any one significant person in your life can still engender a grief response. I do remember the first year after my parents died (within months of each other), I felt a deep hole in my stomach at Christmastime. What we did that Christmas was to drive five hours to a friend’s house in the Virginia countryside. My family and I were grieving, but we upended our usual traditions and did something entirely different. It helped not to do our usual traditions, which would have been hollow. We could return to them the next year.

Allow me to offer some suggestions for coping with the stress of holidays. Recognize your feelings of anger, or sadness, or frustration, or whatever they may be. Acknowledging them is important in being able to calm yourself down. There are numerous strategies for really taking note of your feelings and being able to calm down. One thing to do is to literally “take note.” Writing down what you are experiencing in the moment and taking twenty minutes or so to do a “free write” is amazingly freeing. The psychologist James Pennebaker has documented how valuable a tool is this sort of writing.

Also calming is taking a ten minute walk (longer is great)—especially in nature.

Know that whatever family issues were there before the holidays aren’t going to go away during the holidays. The holidays may only exacerbate the tension already there. If you do want to discuss any difficulties, remember the following: What is the truth you want to speak? Is it necessary speak this truth? When is the proper time (when there is calm) to speak this truth? Can you speak your truth with kindness? This is “right speech.”

Also consider, rather than running away from our sadness in the season due to some loss, honor them instead. Remember your loved ones in a special way—a prayer, a place at the table, a picture.

It is interesting that some religions and cultures (for example, the Mexican Day of the Dead) especially remember the ancestors in November. How befitting a time to do that before the holidays come to help us face the dark of winter with a celebration of light.