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Monday, November 25, 2013

6 Antidotes for Holiday Stress

Thanksgiving week is here.  The holidays can be considered a stressful time of year for many of us - uncle Pete just loves to talk politics while passing the mashed potatoes or how am I going to find room for my cousin who tends to overstay his welcome?

For those living with chronic medical illnesses, the holidays may mean trying to find the energy to go to Thanksgiving dinner, having to explain to Aunt Bethany why they can't eat the stuffing for the 12th time, or struggle to maintain conversation while experiencing nagging pain. It's enough to send the stress meter off the charts, and we may begin to lose it a little.

Every year we know the holidays are coming, but every year we get stressed out.  That doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, does it?  Holiday stress may be inevitable, but the degree to which it hits us is really up to us.  Here are 6 things you can do to help dial down that holiday stress meter this year:

 1. Let Go of Perfectionism

A lot of our stress is self-inflicted.  We want things to be great, perfect even.  Who doesn't?  It's okay if things aren't.  Do your best and if things don't turn out as you pictured in your mind, it's not a catastrophe (see #2).

2.  Stop Catastrophizing

When things don't go our way, or even don't seem like they're going to go our way, we have this tendency to really blow stuff out of proportion - what we therapists call catastrophizing.  The turkey being a little on the dry side or grandpa making an inappropriate comment isn't the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off.  And just like holiday problems are nothing like being nuked, where you're pretty much up a creek without a paddle, IF the worst case scenario happens you can handle it.  Remember all the other times you dealt with horrible situations.  Were they unpleasant?  Sure.  Did you just want it to be over with?  Absolutely.  But you're here, and probably wiser because of it.

3.   Don't Discount the Positive

It's so easy to focus on what's wrong with a situation. And in this process, we can ignore what's right.  In almost every situation that feels catastrophically bad, there's an alternative viewpoint that includes something that's good.  I'm not pushing the power of positive thinking; rather, the power of realistic thinking. Remove the negative filter.

4.  Keep Emotional Reasoning in Check

I feel, therefore it must be true.  If I feel like dinner is going horribly and people are having a bad time, or my friend must hate the gift I gave her (see #5), then it must be the case.  When we think with negative emotions, our reality becomes a bit distorted. There may be a significant disconnect between what we feel (and think) is happening and how others see the situation.  

5.  Quit Mind Reading

Like Clark peering into a Christmas tree, we can try to peer into other peoples' minds to guess what they're thinking.  We're not Miss Cleo (too young for that reference?).  This one is tough because there's really no way to be absolutely sure of what others think about us or a situation, so it requires a bit of faith and trust.  Unless you have some real evidence to back up your beliefs, there are 2 options:  let them go or ask the person.

6.  Burn Off Some of that Steam

You might think that the reason there are Turkey Trot 5Ks is to help burn off some of the Thanksgiving calories. Perhaps.  But a better reason is to help burn off stress.  Not ready to run 3.1 miles?  Make time for whatever your favorite stress-relief activity is.  Don't have an activity?  Go for a 20 minute walk.  Think of your favorite vacation spot and picture yourself there for 10 minutes.  Take 10 deep breaths.  Channel your inner Buddha.  Pray.  Write down your frustrations in a notebook for 5 minutes.

These suggestions may not cure holiday stress, but they will help.  I promise.

Dr. T