Want to know a not-very-fun fact about me?
I loathe the holidays. If I could have things my way, we’d have Halloween, a pagan Yule festival, and then go about our merry ways until summer. That’s it. None of this junk about
covering up genocide turkeys, or professions of undying love and chocolate, or anything involving fireworks.
And before you call me Grinchy, let me tell you this: I’m not the only one who struggles with the holidays. In fact, this Harvard study found that 62% of people interviewed reported their stress levels as “very or somewhat elevated” during this “most wonderful time of the year”.
Factors of Holiday Stress
There are as many possible reasons for holiday stress as there are people. Every family, individual, and dynamic has slight variations. For me personally, the over-commercialization of the holidays and the pressure to spend several days with a family I struggle to connect with makes me irritable and wanting to isolate. For many younger people, the pressure to spend money they don’t have coupled with the Hallmarkian white-people-in-love-in-the-snow ideal is the killer. For older generations, the pressure often comes from trying to recreate a beloved holiday they experienced as a child, along with the financial strain that comes with this season.
If you don’t know what exactly it is about the holidays that upsets you, now is a good time to dig deep and find out, because knowing what bothers you is the first step to resolving or navigating it. Holiday stress can be divided into two sub-types: depression-based stress or anxiety-based stress. Whatever it is you’re feeling, I can promise you that you aren’t alone in feeling it.
Depression-based stress often stems from a feeling of loneliness or disillusionment. This is typically seen in people who are single, those who don’t have a strong family system, or who live far away from people they normally spend holidays with. People in the LGBTQ+ communities often feel more stressed during the holidays due to needing to “tone down” their identities, or feeling rejected and unaccepted by their families; even if they don’t go home for the holidays, the idea of a happy family is such a strong presence during the Christmas season that it brings up reminders of what they might not have. Financial strain, trying to recreate pleasant memories of holidays past, and the increase of social drinking are also emotional and physical depressants.
Of course, Seasonal Affective Disorder and other mental illnesses play a role: according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental illness report the holidays make their condition worse.
Anxiety-based stress is usually seen in people who have “too much to do”: the ones who send out the cards, bake all the goodies, decorate the house to perfection, buy all the gifts, arrange all the holiday activities, and on and on and on. There’s so much pressure to create a “perfect holiday”, especially to impress young children and critical parents, that the to-do list is overwhelming and it can feel like expectations are never met.
There’s often an overlap of the two, meaning a person might experience both anxious symptoms and depressive symptoms. Just know that whatever you’re feeling is valid.
How Covid-19 Could Affect The Holidays
Maybe you’ve lost someone this year. Maybe your family thinks it’s ridiculous that you’re socially distancing. Maybe you want to gather but they want to keep their space. Maybe you caught Covid and are still reeling from the long-term effects of it. Maybe — and this is truly a heart-wrenching reality for many — you’ve been evicted and can’t find work, so you’re absolutely in a bind.
Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that Christmas looks different this year. Many people are spending the holiday alone for the first time, don’t have as much to give, or are realizing that they feel like the only voice of reason in their family. This is unnavigated territory for all of us, so unfortunately I can’t provide a better idea of what to expect until after the season has passed. Even if I could, though, you are the only one who can predict what will change for your specific situation. Now is the time to consider this, if you haven’t done so already.
How To Manage
Now, the meat of the matter: what can we do about it?
(As always, I am not anywhere close to being a licensed professional, and everyone’s situation is unique. These are general points; adjust them as needed.)
Set Boundaries (And Honor Them)
If you’re concerned about Covid (and if you’re in the States, you should be), it is perfectly reasonable to set a boundary along the lines of, “I love my family and I’m sad to miss the holidays with them, but I’m concerned about both my health and theirs, and for that reason I’m staying home.” If you get some pushback, name-calling, or bullying, stand your ground; it might be difficult and scary, and it hurts to have people upset with you, but honoring yourself is worth it, I promise.
Also, it doesn’t matter if the boundaries are about Covid, pronouns, partners, or other issues; if your family bullies and disrespects you, you don’t have to put up with it. You shouldn’t put up with it. It doesn’t make you a better person to tolerate cruelty; it just makes your life more difficult and teaches others they can treat you poorly.
(If there’s interest in this topic, I can gather a few voices on what it’s like to create your own family in lieu of the one we were given.)
Prioritize Your Care
If you’re missing sleep to make sure everyone gets personalized, individual holiday cards; if you forgot to eat because you spent the day shopping for gifts for the extended family; if you’re feeling burnt out from meticulously planning a whole month’s worth of activities —
slow the hell down.
If the thought of sending cards out to absolutely everyone is too overwhelming, then don’t do it. If you absolutely must get them out, do a generalized one for everybody. Get everyone one gift instead of five; if that’s too much, buy gifts only for those you live with instead of the whole family. Just decorate the inside of the house. Only do one activity each week instead of multiple.
There will be other holidays. There is only one you. Take care of yourself.
This ties into the previous point: what are you capable of, realistically? Again, you’re one person. If you have four little ones to take care of, you’re probably not going to be able to spend two days prepping a giant Christmas meal. If you ran out of unemployment, it’s not realistic to go all-out on gifts. If you cannot face your homophobic cousins this year without a screaming match, don’t.
Another way to look at this is: if you wouldn’t tell your best friend to do the things you’re doing, why are you doing them? You’re not Superman, you’re human. Give yourself permission to have limitations. Remember: we’re in a literal pandemic. It’s perfectly normal to not be able to do the things you normally could.
Watch What You Drink
Another not-very-fun fact: regular alcohol consumption can reduce the efficacy of mood-stabilizing medication by up to fifty percent (source: I learned that one the hard way and my doctor looked at me like I was stupid). Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows us down, and it lowers inhibitions, so you’re more likely to engage in petty conflicts that don’t actually deserve your energy. Unfortunately it’s the most socially-acceptable drink during the holidays. If you and the fam are downing mulled wine and spiked eggnog from dawn to dusk, it’s going to have a negative impact on your mental health.
The solution here is fairly simple in theory: limit how much you drink. In a perfect world, don’t drink at all, but at the very least be mindful of how much you’re actually consuming. Your liver and your brain will thank you.
Feel Your Feelings
(Yes, the people who know me are laughing at me for writing that.) It’s a stressful time of year, so if you’re feeling stressed, let yourself be stressed. Grieve the ones you’ve lost. Grieve the fact you won’t be around family. Be angry about the stupid virus and how it’s wrecked this year. Be overwhelmed. You don’t have to be joyful just because Mariah Carey sang it at you. You don’t have to be anything other than you.
And if you’re feeling happy, then for heaven’s sake, be happy.
Just remember: your feelings are valid, but you are still responsible for your actions, regardless of how you’re feeling.
Self care isn’t just a trendy hashtag or a bubble bath (although it can be both of those things, too). It means opting for a salad instead of another cheese-and-crackers snack. It means taking a walk and moving your body. It means doing something to use your brain instead of watching TV all day or endlessly scrolling Instagram. It means going to bed at a reasonable hour. It means drinking more water than you’d probably like. It means journaling about why you’re not happy. It’s all the things we’re supposed to be doing all year, which includes the holidays.
It’s boring, but it’ll help you get through this month with your mind in tact.
And if you need a bubble bath, take a bubble bath.
Since I don’t have anything planned for Christmas Day, I’m going to open up either a Zoom, Skype, or Discord room for a few hours. No matter if you want to drop in and say hello or hang around and chat for a bit, I’ll be available. You’re not alone this season or this year, and I want to be here to remind you of that. We can chat, stream a movie, or play a game — it’s a chance to be human with other humans. I haven’t figured out details on how to do this yet; I’ll certainly make the information available as soon as I do.
What are your thoughts on the holidays? How has Covid-19 changed your Christmas season? What do you do to manage holiday stress?
Blessed be, lovelies.