By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
The holidays are back.
Happy family members gathered around a festively decorated table. Smiling children. Leisurely walks on a crisp winter afternoon with snow crunching underfoot.
It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Then why doesn’t it feel like it?
That image of the perfect holiday doesn’t exist in real life, and chasing it can quickly lead to disappointment, says Jodi Firsdon, assistant director of counseling services at the University of Findlay.
“I see so many people getting so worked up over the holidays when it’s supposed to be something that we enjoy,” she said. “Those two things don’t seem to go together very well.”
Anxiety, the top diagnosis her office sees among students, is also prevalent among adults, Firsdon said.
“So what can we do differently so people can actually enjoy the things that are going on around them?”
First, realize that holiday perfection exists in movies and magazines only, said Firsdon. “Maybe we need to take a step back and realize, OK, this is not true. Everybody has a burnt turkey now and again. Life happens.”
The good news is, we can work on making things more manageable, she said.
Here are five tips to help you cope with some of that holiday anxiety:
Make a list
Think about everything you try to accomplish during the holidays and make two lists. The first should include activities that are important and bring you joy. Do those things.
“Instead of making 20 kinds of cookies, can you make one kind? And can you just enjoy doing that, rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this whole day of baking. I’ve got all these things to do,'” she said.
The second list will be activities that no longer make you happy. Stop doing them.
“If you’re dreading going to the holiday party at work, why are you going?” she said.
Or if you need to make an appearance, limit the amount of time you spend there.
What if I don’t
Many people play the “what if” game, said Firsdon. So what if you don’t put up your outside lights?
“People kind of have this apocalyptic picture inside their head of just, everything is going to fall apart or, if I don’t do this, it’s going to be a terrible Christmas,” Firsdon said.
Then think back to your life as a child. Things probably weren’t perfect then, she said. But did it matter?
“I think commercials definitely play a big role in those expectations. And then we start judging other people: ‘Well, she didn’t put up her outside lights this year, oh my goodness.'”
So think about the things you don’t really need to make the holiday complete, Firsdon said.
“Is it fun to put up the tree? I love putting my tree up. All the rest of the stuff I could probably do without, but the tree I like, and that’s going to be something that I do. So figure out what’s important to you,” she said.
It’s not too late
Just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you always have to do it that way, said Firsdon.
Loss around the time of holidays can be a particularly hard thing, she said, “so change can actually be really productive.” Maybe now you can keep a piece of the tradition and make it your own.
“Maybe Mom’s cookies are the thing that you did together. Maybe we keep Mom’s cookies and we make them and remember her that way,” she said.
Then add something completely new, like taking a cruise.
“We’re combining the old with the new to get what we want,” she said.
Watch your wallet
Economic stresses are most likely to affect people during the holidays, so set a budget and stick to it, said Firsdon. Sit down, write it out, and actually look at the numbers.
“How much do you want to spend, and then how do we arrange that? Because we don’t need to go bankrupt in order to prove that we love and care about somebody,” she said.
Firsdon said she likes to give experiences such as a gift card for the movies or a hotel stay.
If you’re crafty, make some of your gifts. Draw names with family members or friends to limit the number of gifts you need.
“Or maybe do some volunteer work where nobody’s giving gifts except for the gift of your time and of yourself to others,” she said. Change the focus from “gimme, gimme, gimme,” because that’s not what it’s supposed to be about.
Finally, stay healthy, said Firsdon.
“Just because it’s the holidays, don’t let everything fly out the window,” she said. “Keep up on taking care of you, because that’s how we get through and manage stress.”
Part of that includes dealing with people who aren’t necessarily the healthiest for us to be around.
“Can we try to find out what it is we love about that person? Can we use some gratitude? ‘OK, why am I happy that this person’s in my life?'” she said.
And if you can’t, set some boundaries.
“‘Uncle Bob, I need you to stop talking about my divorce. I don’t want to talk about that right now.’ And if they can’t respect that, then we remove ourself from the situation. It’s OK to walk away,” she said.
Some people choose to be around friends instead of family at the holidays for that same reason, and it’s OK.
“As long as you are feeling healthy and satisfied and fulfilled at the end of the day, that’s what you’re going for,” she said. “Choose the things that make you happy.”