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Psychology Professor Provides Tips To Navigate Holiday Season Stress
For many families, this holiday season will be the first that loved ones are gathering together again after a socially-distanced year apart. It will bring a sense of relief for many, but for others, a return of stress and anxiety that comes with large gatherings, travel and busy schedules.
What can you do to manage your own feelings and anxieties around the upcoming holiday season?
Afton Kapuscinski is the director of the Psychological Services Center at Syracuse University and an assistant teaching professor of psychology. She provides helpful steps to navigate difficult political conversations with polarized family members.
Dr. Kapuscinski says:
“Many people have mixed feelings about jumping back into a busy holiday schedule. For most of us, there are both enjoyable and unpleasant aspects to large family gatherings. We may also feel a pull to be present at family events because it is meaningful to people we love. It may be helpful to identify favorite and least favorite aspects of the holidays, so that you can consciously choose ways to minimize the bad while accentuating the good.”
Q: Given last year’s socially-distanced holiday, how are some people feeling about coming together again?
A: While many people are eager to gather after missed opportunities during the pandemic, others may have appreciated some of the perks that last year’s subdued holiday season offered. Although 2021 presented plenty of challenges, social distancing may have reduced common stressors associated with holidays, including traveling, hosting houseguests, navigating tense family dynamics, and finding the time to fit everything in.
Additionally, financial pressures for a subset of people may have actually been reduced last year, with less time off from work, reduced pressure related to gift-giving, and no travel costs.
Although most people report experiencing substantial positive emotions like love and connectedness during the holidays, the stressful aspects may now be more apparent after last year’s respite from them. Women may have especially enjoyed the break from hectic holidays because they are much more likely to experience increased stress and difficulty relaxing during the holiday season. Women typically assume the vast majority of responsibility in families for planning and hosting. Additionally, a major source of anxiety for women at this time of year involves concern about eating, maintaining diets, and avoiding weight gain – a concern related to our culture’s tendency to spotlight women’s appearances.
Q: To your points about the increased stress and anxiety that sometimes come with hosting duties, what should you do if you really enjoyed having a more low-key holiday season and don’t want to return to large gatherings?
A: Many people have mixed feelings about jumping back into a busy holiday schedule. For most of us, there are both enjoyable and unpleasant aspects to large family gatherings. We may also feel a pull to be present at family events because it is meaningful to people we love. It may be helpful to identify favorite and least favorite aspects of the holidays, so that you can consciously choose ways to minimize the bad while accentuating the good. For example, if you do not like to travel but enjoy seeing family, consider inviting family to your home. We can easily get emotionally “stuck” by believing we do not have a choice surrounding holiday plans, and the pandemic may have taught us the valuable lesson that can make changes.
Q: Can you provide some general tips to approach the holidays in a way that prioritizes mental health?
- Ask yourself whether striving for perfection may be causing some of your stress, and consider whether the details you become fixated on are actually of significant consequence in the big picture. Give yourself permission to be present and enjoy yourself rather than taking a bird’s-eye view to make everything “just so”.
- Make room for changes and new traditions that are consistent with your own values, while accepting that others may not always share your preferences. Be willing to compromise if possible with family who have different preferences.
- If you take on disproportionate responsibility, ask for help and delegate tasks. Do not assume that others know you are struggling.
- If commercialization of the holidays bothers you, suggest making a change to how your family approaches gift-giving, and/or choose to emphasize community services and charitable contributions.
- If interpersonal dynamics are a major source of stress at the holidays, plan ahead for how you can reduce the chances of encountering problematic interactions, and plan your responses to problematic conversations ahead of time.
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