Opinion: Downsize Those Holiday Stresses

By Dr. Negar Beheshti

Thanksgiving ushers in the start of the holiday season for many households across the country. The season’s gatherings and gift giving are celebrated in TV commercials and narrated in countless movies, but what about individual expectations?

How do we manage this season that brings both satisfaction and stress to our doorstep? How do we avoid that rollercoaster ride around feelings that the season ushers in as well? How do we help family members struggling with their mental health enjoy the holidays, and how do we help children keep their wish lists reasonable? How do we cope with our own desires and disappointments?

My top answers are to start with an emotional wellness check-in and move forward with respect for where others are in their expectations.

Engage in some self-talk about what will make your holidays more relaxing and fun. Stressed about finances? Do a budget. Stressed running around shopping? Ask other people to help or come up with a tradition like secret Santa where each person gifts one family member and not all family members. Stressed over a multi-course meal? Make it potluck.

Preset your expectations and do your self-care so that on Jan. 3 you don’t wake up worried about financial liabilities, feeling sleep-deprived for a month and 10 pounds overweight. What you lay down for yourself in the next few weeks is going to help you wake up in the new year feeling OK and in control.

Communicating about expectations is important within families, as is talking about a family’s culture and tradition for celebrating holidays, whether this means Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or another observance, secular or sacred, so no one feels left out.

Kids should be reminded that they can have a holiday wish list, but that there are a lot of children in this world, and Santa is all about providing cheer for everybody, so they may not get 100% of their wishes, but whatever they get is more than they had.

It is important for families who may have members with mental or physical health limitations to have a conversation with them on how holiday celebrations are sensitive to their needs. For example, parents with a child challenged by mental-health issues might sit down and say, “this is what we have figured out for our celebration this year. What sounds good about it, what would you like to see changed, and how will it be for you if we have a bigger family celebration?” It is important to have these conversations so everybody can enjoy the holidays without extra stress and worry.

If families are together for the first time since the loss of a relative, celebrate that member’s life and the good memories from when they were present. It is a way to minimize, especially for children, the sadness of a loved one not being there by remembering what that individual did contribute.

Struggling with your own mental-health issues? Be aware of the symptoms associated with your condition, and if any one of them is not in check, get back to whomever is helping you in the community — therapist, psychiatrist, family physician — and ask how you can get more help so this does not ruin the holidays.

Need to turn down an invitation? Do it with compassion and honesty. For example, if Uncle Joe invites you to his annual large gathering and you don’t want to do crowds for whatever reason, show appreciation for the invitation. Say this is not about him, but what you need right now, and you hope he will respect that, and maybe set something up after the holidays one-on-one or do something beforehand on a smaller scale. If your offer is not well-received, then it is not, but you still must maintain your self-preservation in that situation.

If you feel like you are going to be lonely during the holidays or don’t have a family, be proactive and, if physically and mentally able, volunteer.

If feelings of isolation and depression start to worsen for you or someone you know, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, where free and confidential support is available 24/7.

This year provides the opportunity to return to traditions not followed the last few years because of the pandemic or to continue with new ways of celebrating that had to be implemented because of it. A lot of folks don’t do well in large family settings, and maybe this means just having the nuclear family together, as this proved more peaceful during the pandemic’s now-lifted restrictions.

I wish all of you a safe and happy holiday season and much success in individual and collective plans to celebrate across traditions.

Dr. Negar Beheshti is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and chief medical officer for both MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke and TaraVista Behavioral Health Center, its sister hospital in Devens.