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Staying Sane During the Holiday Season
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 12/26/2016


The colorful holiday season is supposed to be a time of fun, love and joy around family and friends, and for some, also a time of spiritual reflection. Yet, there might be some downsides to this time of year, in spite of the touted “holiday cheer.” This article is about identifying some of the factors that may try to creep in and steal the true joy of the season, and suggesting ways to reduce or avoid avoidable stress associated with the holidays.

So what can happen from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day? Words like overstimulation, overindulgence, and overdrive may capture the average picture. We may find ourselves on the go nonstop, overeating, overdrinking, and overspending, not wanting to miss out on any of the fun. Weighed down with buyer’s remorse, some of us might start the New Year exhausted and frazzled, and staring a pile of holiday debt in the face.

One of the culprits may be the seemingly obligatory gift giving. There is this pressure floating around, this expectation, that we must prove our love to significant others through the purchase of “the” perfect gifts for them. Parents and others may compete as to who will spend more on a child or on someone else, as if number of dollars spent is the gauge of sincere love and devotion.

Along the same lines, we may feel obligated to buy gifts for just about every person we know, so no one feels left out. So we might buy “stuff” we don’t necessarily even like to give to someone we may not even really like, because this is the thing to do during the holidays. And regarding this compulsory gift buying, we might not really care what we buy, as long as it fits our budget, and helps us cross that person off our shopping list. Gift bought for ___? Check. That can end up being a lot of pressure.

This not-so-subtle competition can spread to who has the prettiest Christmas lights, who has the tallest and most elegant Christmas tree, who has the most guests show up to their Christmas party, who… who … who … to no apparent end.

Another culprit may be the sheer volume of activities associated with the holiday season, causing essential down time and other “me” time to get pushed aside in order to meet children’s, employers’, friends’ and relatives’ expectations, by attending numerous events. And on top of that, we may also host a party, with all the expense and preparation this requires, the energy it takes, and the clean-up that follows. Why have all these gatherings bunched up during a few weeks of the year instead of spreading them out throughout the year?

A third factor that saps energy during the holiday season can be the extended family gatherings on “the” special days. Oftentimes, these are not the easiest to pull off. There can be tension and even outright verbal clashes regarding whose house we go to for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, or whose house we visit first from among key relatives when we make our rounds on these holidays.

Hurt feelings, pouting, complaints and guilt trips by dissatisfied relatives can rob us of the joy of the holiday season.

Moreover, spending time with family members one tends to avoid the rest of the year can cause old conflicts to resurface. Such pressures, not so subtle competition among relatives for others’ affection, and overt conflict among (at times) inebriated guests has led a friend of mine to declare that the holiday season is the “Olympics of dysfunctional families.”

How might a season of celebration end up becoming a season of overindulgence, overstimulation, buyer’s remorse, exhaustion, the dreaded weight gain, and even the “blues?”

I think that part of the reason is that, somehow, we’ve been led to believe that the holiday season with its opportunities for indulgence on many levels will bring us the perfect emotional state, the perfect gift, the perfect meal, the perfect gathering, THE perfect whatever. High expectations for satisfaction and happiness abound. And such unrealistic expectations are most likely going to lead to disappointment when they do not come to pass like we thought they would, or evaporate after the novelty of a present or excitement of an event—no matter how special—wears off. The fantasy bubble of holiday happiness bursts, followed by the day of reckoning, when the credit card statement hits our mailbox or our inbox.

The drive for the high of indulgence is masterfully fueled by retailers’ bombardment with “holiday specials,” bargains and sales. We don’t want to miss out on a good deal. So we buy. The shopping frenzy says a lot about what we consider to be important, what we think we cannot do without (the latest, biggest, best, 33% more), and the degree to which we may be susceptible to this special form of “peer pressure.”

So here are some suggestions for staying sane during the holiday season stampede.

Regarding gift buying
  • Make a realistic budget for holiday shopping (that is, within your financial means), and stick with it. Absolutely don’t go into debt for Christmas presents. One way to do that is to save throughout the year for your upcoming Christmas shopping.
  • Don’t buy something to just buy it because it is advertised as a good deal. Do you, or the person you’re buying it for, really need or have use for this item at this time? When accosted with all kinds of bargains, remind yourself that just because something is supposedly a bargain, you don’t have to have it.
  • Make symbolic personal gifts that are expressions of your affection or appreciation for someone. Bake some goodies, make something, sew something, or give a “coupon” for child sitting, house cleaning, or for a time together fishing, jogging, walking, playing a game.
  • Create your own family traditions. You don’t have to do it the way everyone else does. For example, you may choose to have your gift giving take place during New Year’s Eve, instead of Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Or you can give small and inexpensive gifts as tokens of appreciation and demonstrations of affection during the holidays, while giving expensive gifts or making large purchases the rest of year, such as during someone’s birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, as a surprise, and/or in response to a real need. These practices remove the societal pressure for expected (and almost competitive) mega gift giving during the Christmas holidays. Instead, you and your loved ones can focus on quality time together, shifting the season’s focus from commercial or obligatory gift-buying to expressions of gratitude and love, and to relational and spiritual activities.
  • Shop after the holiday season is over. This will increase the probability that you’ll be able to buy items at truly reduced prices. Store them and give them during the rest of the year as suggested
  • If you have a large extended family, consider drawing names and buying for the one person whose name you have drawn rather than knocking yourself out buying for each individual. Consider setting a price limit for gifts, for example, no more than $25—and honor that. Don’t try to outdo everyone else by buying presents that cost more than the set amount.
  • Refuse to get drawn into competition with an ex-spouse or with other relatives or friends regarding how much was spent on gifts, what gifts were purchased, or how many people attended a holiday celebration.
  • If your favorite way to express love is through gift giving, and you absolutely want to celebrate by emphasizing this aspect of the holidays, of course do that, but keep it affordable. And remember that you can express love that way throughout the year. There is nothing sacred or exclusive about bestowing gifts on others (or on yourself) around Christmas time.
  • Instead of buying the seemingly obligatory gifts that people may put aside and not use much, if at all, consider giving to reputable charities that provide services to those in truly desperate straits. This practice can also help teach your children compassion and sharing.
Family Gatherings and Other Social Events
  • Try to maintain your daily and weekly routine as much as possible to avoid feeling disoriented and overwhelmed during the holiday frenzy. Protect your personal downtime and workout time.
  • To avoid one person getting overloaded, divide up who brings what dishes to a family dinner, and annually rotate houses where the family dinner takes place. If traditionally everyone gathers at their parents’ home, seek to expand and alternate the options as the years go by and the parents get older or are widowed, and make a special effort to include in-laws.
  • Don’t skip meals in order to splurge during a holiday dinner. Research shows that skipping lunch in order to splurge later can result in people eating over twice as many calories during that splurge as they would have eaten had they had their normal lunch and snacks prior to the holiday meal.
  • If family gatherings are predictably toxic—high-pressure and high-conflict, consider spending key days of the holidays with your immediate family out of town.
  • Make sure you get sufficient rest and sleep on a daily basis.
  • If you’re working during the holidays—which very likely you will be—set up times to celebrate on your days off work.
Mark your calendar for special get-togethers with family and friends during the spring, summer and fall. This will free up your holiday season so you can maintain a reasonable pace in your life and not get overloaded and worn out.

These are just some suggestions about ways to avoid “holiday fatigue.” You may have already figured out some that work for you. If you’d like, email your thoughts to me.

Wishing you all a safe and sane holiday season, reflecting on this special time, enjoying your loved ones, reaching out to those in need, and counting your blessings!

This article as been reprinted with permission from the November 2016 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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