November 28, 2011

Holiday Stress? Five Self-Defeating Habits And How to Break 'em

Gosh, Isn't This FUN???
Image: Plan 59

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Something Else, or Nothing At All, it's hard not to be at least somewhat affected by the holiday season.  Reminders are everywhere: flashing at us from giant billboards, piled up in displays in every retail outlet, stalking us around the web, cramming our social calendars, tempting us with treats, turning tender tots into greedy tyrants, and swiping all the good parking places.  What are we supposed to be remembering, honoring, accomplishing, celebrating, desiring, and giving this time of year? No worries, we have centuries of tradition and ubiquitous mass media to shove unrealistic and oppressive ideas down our throats help us decide!

Some folks breeze right through all this with nothing but a sense of delight and gratitude. If you're one of those Happy Holiday Campers, then hooray for you! No doubt you can better use the time you'd spend reading this post to do your usual holiday thing, like knitting rifle cozies for an entire division of troops serving overseas, or custom-baking anatomically correct gingerbread cookies for home-bound elderly amputees, or recreating life-sized Nativity Scenes using recycled toothpicks, aluminum cans and hair-clippings donated by local salons. Whatever it is you've got up your busy sleeves, you clearly have the energy and positive attitude to tackle it, so go forth and be happily productive!

But for the rest of us, I've got some "Do As I Say And Not as I Do!" holiday anti-stress tips.  Plus, as a bonus, there's another related post on the same theme by Aimee Gallo over at Vibrance.  And who is Aimee? She's a woman I recently met... at the gym.  Imagine! What are the chances that two people interested in fitness would both end up there?  As it turns out, she's got a great blog full of health, nutrition, and exercise tips. And after you come back from Aimee's place (and please do, ok, it gets ugly here when I start to sulk and pout), you may want to ask yourself: do any of the following five stress-inducing holiday habits sound a tad familiar?

1. Procrastination

Nah, I'm not talking about strategic procrastination, which is a perfectly sensible strategy for dealing with holidays. If you know that you're more efficient if you wait until the last minute, and if you're not tearing your hair out worrying about how you'll get everything done, then by all means, procrastinate up a storm.

But try to avoid the more common, yet clueless sort of procrastination: allowing the idea of all that shopping and mailing and planning and decorating and cooking to get so big in your mind that it overwhelms you into paralysis.

Do you find yourself struggling to get started on your holiday to-do list while others around you are gleefully shouting "all done!" and plopping their smug asses down on the couch to drink spiked eggnog and watch the Grinch steal Christmas for the 87th time?  Wouldn't it be cool to feel as guilt-free and chipper as a Who down in Who-ville for the holiday season, just this once for a nice change of pace?

Well, no brilliant new insights here, because two tried and true bits of anti-procrastination advice are way better than anything I could come up with.

1. Start early and break tasks down into baby steps. Don't worry so much about the big picture, just spend a few minutes here or there you might use checking Facebook updates to start a brainstorming list about gift ideas or menu ideas. Or go browse one nearby store on your lunch hour (if such a thing still exists), or spend a few minutes online with a particular recipient in mind. Make a trip to the basement or attic this evening to find the dusty boxes where the decorations hide. You get the idea. Make the steps small enough not to be scary, and congratulate yourself for everything you cross off the list earlier than you would have last year.

2. Confront perfectionism. The root of procrastination is often not laziness, but fear of making mistakes or coming up short.  Oddly enough though, anxiously waiting until the last minute to tackle holiday preparations--when lines are long, stores are sold out of popular items, flights are booked, friends have made other plans, etc--does not make Holiday Perfection easier to obtain.  Jump in, do your best, and keep in mind that believing you can create the Perfect Holiday is about as helpful as believing Santa Claus is gonna fork over for all your presents squoosh himself down your chimney.  Good luck with either approach to the holidays.

2. High Expectations

These are no problem if every year you have a heartwarming and joyous holiday. If your life is a Normal Rockwell painting, then heck, eat a big slice of apple pie, enjoy your hilarious and kind-hearted relatives, and be sure to laugh together over the zany antics of Fluffy the cat and Rex the dog, neither of whom have ever have fleas, furballs or flatulence!

But is your life a nonstop joyride?  If not, sometimes those lovely shiny expectations of what we should be doing for others, what others should be doing for us, how cheerful we should feel, how our families should behave, how clean and beautiful our homes should be, how bosses should schedule shifts over the holidays... all these “shoulds” we carry with us can lead to hair-pulling anxiety or bitter disappointment. And yet it’s so hard to let go! Even if Uncle Larry has gotten drunk off his ass six out of the last seven family gatherings and proceeded to knock over knickknacks, insult your daughter’s Asian boyfriend, and crack dirty jokes in front of the kids, we still feel we should invite him because damn it, he’s family, and double-damn it, he should know how to behave by now.

The answer to overly high expectations is both easy to figure out, and really freakin' hard to do:

Explore, challenge, and let go of some of the “shoulds” that aren’t working for you. Should you always be the one to host a holiday dinner every year because you are uniquely qualified by being born with XX instead of XY chromosomes? Do you spend weeks coming up with thoughtful and surprising gifts for unimaginative relatives who always buy you socks, hurting your feelings every year? Do you cruise into malls during the busiest shopping days of the year and feel personally outraged when lines are long and overworked sales clerks are gruff because shopping should be a pleasant experience?

Maybe this year, challenge just one of your stress-inducing expectations. Aim low, expect random sucky stuff to happen, and enjoy those precious moments when nothing's going wrong!

3.Lack of Boundaries

There are lot of extra demands during the holidays, some reasonable, some ludicrous, and some fine in theory but horrific in practice. One of the first obstacles you may run into after successfully Lowering Your Expectations of Yourself (#2) will be dealing with the rest of the world, which may not be in full agreement with your shiny new anti-stress agenda. So, do you get to choose your own priorities?  Or are you going to feel obliged to appease the people who are the most obnoxious, entitled, overly sensitive or persistent and then pay for it with your sanity?

To keep yourself from going nuts and honor your own priorities, it helps to get familiar with the word “No.” Or, more politely, “No thank you, I really can’t this year, but thanks so much for thinking of me!” To be repeated over and over over, without further explanation, as often times as necessary.

However, lots of folks think this sounds like a great idea and yet can’t for the life of them make themselves say something like that out loud to another human.

So what are the next best options for declining demands if unapologetically honest refusal isn't your style?

1. Hedge.  Don't let yourself get caught by a surprise request.  Make it a rule to never to commit to something unless you're absolutely sure you have the time and desire to do it.  Try to leave yourself an out. “Sounds great, but I'm not sure if I'm free.  I need to double-check with my husband/babysitter/boss/voodoo priestess, and then I'll get back to you!"  Then give yourself a chance to really think through if you want to or not.

2. Lie! Yeah, sure, honesty is a better bet from a karma perspective, but hell, I say if it’s white lie that saves you from chasing random strangers down the street with a cleaver in your hand from a bad case of Post Traumatic Holiday Stress syndrome, it’s a white lie worth telling. Invent conflicting social events, illness, injuries, work crises, alien abduction, obscure religious injunctions, strange voices whispering to you in the night… whatever it takes to you the space and time you need to survive the holidays in relatively good spirits.

4. Rationalization

One thing that’s awesome about holidays is that they give us permission to relax our usual sensible rules about working, eating, drinking, spending, flirting, sleeping late, exercising etc. Have some champagne! Have second helpings for dinner! Stay up until 3am! Buy that big screen tv for your family you’ve been wanting for so long!

However, there’s a big difference between a “special occasion” and an “alternate reality.”

If your holiday season extends nonstop from pre-halloween Snickers stockpiling to post New Years Day football festival leftovers, you're probably going to want to inject some common sense into the process. Either that or alter the laws of physiology, psychology, economics and physics. Even if you tell yourself you’re “celebrating,” isn’t it hard to feel truly joyous knowing you’re piling up guilt, regret, debt, organ damage, low-self esteem and excess poundage?

So whats the answer? Again, easier said than done: 

Moderation and Damage Control!  Insisting on perfection is party-poopy and pointless, but so is throwing a holiday “on/off” switch and pretending normal rules don’t apply. Remember all the stuff you normally do to exert self control? Don’t toss it all out the window.  Have a "night off," then get back to your normal routine the next day.  You'll feel better, and will enjoy the next "night off" more than if you make the holidays one continuous excuse to indulge.

Also, think about adding as many positive healthy things you can to the mix: get more exercise, vegetables, meditation, water, tea, nature, music, hot baths, laughter… and then you’ll feel slightly less like snarfing up every single evil temptation that the holiday season offers up.

5. Commercialization

We’re besieged daily during this time of year with messages equating love, happiness, excitement, loyalty, gratitude, confidence, intelligence, excitement… with the crap we buy. Seriously, we can’t think of other ways to show affection besides extravagant presents? Do we really measure self esteem by the number of karats in a diamond earring or the vintage of the wine we pour at a holiday dinner?

Many folks get so caught up in the material aspects of the holiday that they feel financially stressed, inadequate, grouchy, or martyred.

This year, is it going to be different? Let’s Occupy Santa’s Toyshop! Tell that tedious old fart to send the poor elves home early, go easy on all the Christmas list promises, and let the rest of us spend more time enjoying friends and family and less time shopping for them.

Make sure to build in a little time for yourself, too--do something restorative to take down your stress levels so that you can be present and appreciative with Loved Ones.  Sadly, you don't get nearly as much "credit" for getting together with relatives at holidays if you spend the whole time snapping at them or feeling put-upon and resentful.

Another holiday tradition to consider is the notion of  giving to those less fortunate. Go volunteer at a soup kitchen, or help round up presents for underprivileged kids, or even stop in and drop off some cookies to that annoying but lonely old lady next door who lets her poodle poop on your lawn. She may not even thank you for it, but you’ll feel better. (At least until the next time you find dog shit on your shoe).

A Few Random Stress Resources

Mayo Clinic has another round up of ways to prevent holiday stress.

Kaiser Permanente has some free guided visualization downloads and doesn’t seem to lock out nonmembers. There are also free guided mediation downloads at Fragrant Heart.

And of course I have to mention my favorite anti-stress geek/guru/role-model Rick Hanson, who has a free newsletter, as well as anti-stress books, CD's and other resources. Oh, and I can't leave out Sounds True, the company that let me take Rick's course for free--they also have a bunch of free meditation downloads.

So does anyone else get stressed during the holidays? Got any tips or horror stories?


  1. Excellent advice as usual, Crabby. I ignore most of the outside world this time of year to a greater degree than the rest of the year. It works for me.

  2. Hey, if the holidays don't kill you they make you stronger, yes?

    Seriously, thanks for such a comprehensive and well presented article! I'll be passing it on to my stressed friends.

    Just as an aside, on one New Years Eve I spent the holiday in the emergency room, not because I had a problem, but because my buddy (also a surgeon) was so slammed with patients that I went in to help him out!

  3. Ummm I hate to admit this but I am one of those people that are all done before Thanksgiving even starts. I pretty much shop deals all year round to find unique gifts for people. This year however since I am unemployed, I did not really buy much. Just for my parents this year and one friend.

    On another note cranky are you on I was trying to build up my "friend" list other than my one other friend on there. It's a pretty good website. Back to keeping track of my food and workouts. Have a great week!

    Did you set up the word verification I just cracked up it is HAG appropriate.

  4. Hey thanks Leah, Dr. J & Moonlight Dancer!

    God I love the "hag gym" word verification... if that were a new fitness chain for grumpy middleaged female exercisers, I'd sign right up!

  5. Under rationalization: you can only get from pre-Halloween Snickers to New Years? What about Epiphany, Candlemas, and all the way through Mardi Gras? Talk about rationalization, in south Louisiana you can have a free for all reason to indulge every single day of the year if you want.

    Yes, be careful about planning those days of excess, and you will enjoy them.

    Great advice all around.

  6. A way too relevant topic this time of year! ;-) You came up with lots of think about & maybe we can do half of it!!! :-)

    In the past, I have been more stressed just due to less time when I was working way too much. Now, the stress is lack of money BUT it does make it easy to focus on the true meaning of just enjoying friends & family. Yes, I wish I could give but maybe just doing a good deed is a better way to show one cares.

    As for saying NO & getting my workouts in, I do have that down! ;-)

  7. ... knitting rifle cosies *snort* another reason why I love reading Cranky Fitness...

  8. Thank goodness all that has been handed on as I have become one of the older generation - I make a point of buying my gifts during the year when I see something that shouts "so & so" and then enjoy being spoiled with special time with all the family!!

  9. Wonderful post, Crabby! As I get a little older, I realize that the "perfect" holiday for me is more and more simple, with fewer expectations - less emphasis on material things and more on enjoying family. (Wine helps, too.)

    @ Dr. J - you rock! I think it's wonderful that you would spend New Year's Eve helping your friend in the ER!

  10. I used to be one of those people who had all the presents bought by October. Then, I just got less and less interested, and gradually quit giving presents. I'm really good at blowing off the stressors society tries to impose on us, and now I have back my old excuse of working at a boarding kennel, where the concept of Time Off at major holidays is laughable.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  11. start early! I keep promising myself that "this will be the year" I'm going to make sure this actually is!

  12. I have cut my Christmas lists (shopping and baking) down to well....nothing this year :) I will be avoiding the shopping meccas also, so I think I am good.

  13. Perfect post as usual Crabby!

    I'm afraid I'm one of those obnoxious overly-festive holiday folks. But I'm feeling way behind that tomorrow is December 1st and I don't have anything Christmas out. (Scratch that - put the advent calendar out today. Had to. Kids would freak if it wasn't there in the morning. That also meant scheduling the activities for the month and creating the inserts.) In fact...I still have bats on a few windows. *face-palm*

    I blame the road trip! And all will be remedied this weekend when we make our annual trek to cut down our trees. Saturday and Sunday shall be the days of decking. (The halls. No relatives shall be harmed in the making of this holiday. I think.)

  14. I usually hate this time of year. The weather is normally crap, i.e. cold, snowy, freezing fogs and NO SUN AT ALL!

    This year, we've had a run of sun and dry weather for early December and it's amazing how that can improve one's outlook.

    Not only did we break ground on a front yard construction / remodel project, we did it the day before Thanksgiving!

    Or, as my procrastination goes, just before the front porch entirely rotted out from under us, LOL!

    Bring on the stress! There's nothing like having a major construction and remodel project during the holidays, LOL!

    I told the family we were having RUBBLE for Thanksgiving! Which is what it looked like alright, once underpinnings of the porch and the walkway and the front steps were all jack-hammered up!

    However, to compensate, I think we may forego an Xmas tree this year. If our newly poured (as of this AM) walkways are cured enough, I *might* go looking for a small tree this weekend. But usually stuff is sold out by then, or what's left isn't remotely fresh, so I'm not real hopeful.

    I'm not overdoing the shopping thing. We can't afford to. But hubby will get one really cool toy that will be a total surprise and I think he will love it!

    The cats have a new scratching post, already here, but not assembled. I may get them some kind of small cat tree, to go along with the giant one they got last year. Mostly, they'll make do with their old toys, of which they have more than any other cats on the planet, LOL!

    At any rate, I'm sort of halfway done on Xmas and amazingly, stressing much less than usual, considering all that is going on and constant decisions having to be made on our front yard/front porch/doorway remodel.

    I'm majorly amused by my word verification of "dumbe". It probably fits, I mean, who does construction of their walkways during the month you most need the postman to be able to get to your door!? Thank goodness hubby can have packages delivered at work.

  15. start early! I keep promising myself that "this will be the year" I'm going to make sure this actually is!


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