By Errol Castens
Andy Williams’ crooning promise that the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year” rings hollow for some people.
If anything, the weeks stretching from Thanksgiving and Christmas to New Year’s and beyond can magnify stresses from loneliness and financial difficulties to abrasive family relationships and physical exhaustion. Add in unrealistic expectations and the light deficit brought on by short, cloudy days, and the season can be downright depressing for some.
Magazine covers, movies and even our own nostalgia reinforce holidays as times for perfect gifts, perfect meals, perfect décor and, of course, being the perfect host or hostess.
“We all know somebody who wants everything to be just so for every holiday event, and if it’s not just so, they go into a tizzy,” said John Baker, director of Region IV Tupelo Crisis Stabilization Unit and a nationally certified counselor.
“Forget perfection. Holidays are never perfect,” he said. “If there are bumps in the road, relax, let it go and enjoy the quality times you have with people you care about.”
Joy Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and outreach manager for North Mississippi Medical Center Behavioral Health, agrees.
“Being realistic and planning ahead can ward off a lot of problems,” she said. “It starts out with acknowledging if you’ve been overwhelmed or depressed at past holidays.”
Stay on a schedule, she said, making space for the routine obligations of everyday life and the extra planning, cooking, shopping and gatherings, and leave pockets of down time near big events. Those with a history of stress overload around the holidays might even consider dropping some activities until January.
“Look at what you normally are committed to and decide which ones can be set aside. Let people know that you can’t participate in them for the next few weeks,” Johnson said.
Financial difficulties often come with the expectations attached to Christmas.
“It’s early enough now to look at your finances and say, ‘What kind of money do we have right now and the next couple of pay periods?’” Johnson said. “Write it down, look at what you really have to use for necessities. It gives you a sense of anxiety when you know you’re not doing right by your finances.”
As much as families are a part of the idealized image of American Thanksgiving and Christmas, time spent with certain people can be emotionally taxing – from Aunt Edna’s complaining and Uncle Art’s incessant arguing of politics to Brother Bob’s inappropriate jokes.
Some stress may be self-imposed, as in unfavorably comparing one’s own assets and accomplishments to those of other, seemingly happier, family members. It can even involve having to be around a former romantic interest.
“Think about whom you’re going to be spending time with and what your triggers are,” Johnson suggested. “If you know you’re going to run into that one person at that Christmas Eve event, make a pact with yourself to accept the things you can’t change in others. Make an agreement early on to allow yourself to experience the feelings but not to act on them.”
Baker said family conflict may call for a temporary truce during the holidays.
“Put those things on the back burner and agree to talk about them later,” he said.
James Tyson, director of alcohol and drug counseling at Communicare in Oxford, said avoidance may be the best answer in extreme cases.
“It’s perfectly OK to give yourself permission not to go to a family gathering if you know someone’s going to act a butt,” he said. “You have to decide – is it going to create more stress to go or not to go?”
The opposite problem, of course, is when one is isolated from family during celebratory times through poor health, geographic separation, work obligations or even the death of a family member.
“It’s a sad situation to be away from loved ones,” said Johnson, who spent three Christmases overseas on her husband’s military assignment. “You have to develop your own rituals since you’re without your family.
“Or it may be that you get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment out of taking that time to do something for someone else,” she said.
“A lot of people, when they feel alone or depressed, we encourage them to give back to others,” Baker added. “Volunteering at a stewpot or adopting an Angel Tree child takes the focus off your own disappointments.”
Maintaining good physical habits is crucial to lessen holiday stresses.
“Scheduling sleep and exercise is important,” Baker said. “We don’t say not to do Black Friday, but we do say leave yourself some time to rest. And schedule some time to get out and walk for 30 or 40 minutes a day. Exercise makes a huge difference.”
He warned against too much food or alcohol.
“When you overindulge, you feel lethargic, depressed and guilty,” he said.
Tyson said alcohol is a slippery slope for many, heightened by Christmas and New Year’s festivities.
“The standard gift for some is a fifth of bourbon,” he said. “And there’s a lot of drinking around a lot of holiday celebrations.”
Sometimes, despite their best efforts, people need help to cope with emotional stresses.
“Recognize the symptoms. If you don’t want to get up and go to work, don’t want to participate in life, go talk to somebody – a community mental health professional, a pastor or someone else who can help,” Tyson said. “Depression starts out slow, and the next thing you know you’ve got full-blown symptoms. That can paralyze you.”
Baker said counseling shouldn’t be threatening to anyone.
“We offer it in a friendly, comforting environment so they don’t feel intimidated by it,” he said. “Depression and anxiety are something a lot of people go through. Everybody needs somebody to talk to.”