There are many ways to add stress to your holiday season. Consider the following five suggestions:
1. Go to as many holiday parties as possible
2. Travel excessively using air, land,and/or sea-based vehicles
3. Drink Olympic amounts of alcohol at all professional holiday events
4. Hang out at malls, superstores and midtown Manhattan
5. Spend quality time with your extended family
If you plan to do any or all of these things over the next six weeks, you probably already know you are in for some stress this holiday season. The relationship between stress and the holidays is well documented in both the psychological and medical literature, and holiday stresses tend to impact women disproportionately. At this time of year, I tend to spend a fair amount of time with patients who are anticipating the onslaught of commitments, travel, consumption and, of course (I saved the best for last), family.
But there is another way, a smarter way to approach the holidays this year. With a little planning and forethought, you can bring on the New Year with the calm and self-assurance of a Jedi Master. To be smart about the holidays you should consider your needs, your expectations and craft a smart holiday plan.
1. Needs: You have 'em, too. I know we are supposed to always think of others first, especially at the holidays, blah, blah, blah, but if you don't at least consider your own needs, all of your loving kindness to friends and family members may come out as teeth-clenching resentment. Think about what experiences you would like to have in order to have an enjoyable end of the year and put them in your plan.
2. Expectations: If you expect your holidays to be amazing, you have a high bar to jump -- if this doesn't make intuitive sense to you, consider how lame New Year's Eve tends to be. Instead of thinking of the holidays as a time of joy, rest and cheer think of them more like a marathon that begins on Thanksgiving and ends on Jan. 2. When I say marathon, let me be clear that I'm not talking about the Chicago Marathon that is flat and has great running weather, but more like one of those marathons out west that take you up Big Sur or through Death Valley in 700 degree heat. Now you get the idea. Lower your expectations for the holidays and you will be more satisfied.
3. Plan: You wouldn't try to run a marathon without training, would you? Anticipate what, or who, is going to give you the most grief this holiday season and plan accordingly. Maybe it will be your mom. After all, she did just finish attending that four-day course on "Cutting Edge Passive Aggressive Behavior With Your Adult Children," and she's going to want to practice. It could be Uncle Jim who is going to ask you if you're still stuck in the same job. Or perhaps it will be your cousin Evan's inappropriate jokes about your figure.
Really think about who and what pushes your buttons. Consider how to avoid those exchanges or respond to them when they inevitably happen. Planning for the holidays is not a one-size fits all activity, it will depend of your cast of characters, but here are a few suggestions that help you create a smart plan for the holidays:
1. Think Smart: When you feel the stress coming on, take time to think about your many blessings and be thankful for who and what you have in your life. Remember, even when Aunt Judy buys you Season 3 of Queer Eye, when what you really wanted was Season 1 of "The Wire," that most things are returnable and that things aren't that important anyway. It's easy to forget that we all get what we need and that we have many wonderful things to be thankful for in our lives.
2. Schedule Smart: Reduce your commitments this holiday season. You are overscheduled as it is, and spending six hours at Fran's annual party is stressful both because it's boring and because it takes you away from things that you either want to, or have to do. Spend less time at Fran's than you usually do. Explain to her that you want to spend time with her, and so you are making arrangements to be there for the first half of the party, but then you'll have to leave. You're sure she understands (she doesn't really, but don't let that stop you, remember you have needs, too).
If you are going to a family event that you don't want to attend, but have to attend, try scheduling something that you do want to do afterward. That will take some of the sting out of your sister's backhanded compliments about how thin you looked a few months ago.
3. Travel Smart: If you must travel, get to the airport two hours earlier than you think you should. The lines are always longer than you think they will be and once you get past security you can use the time catching up on emails, phone calls, paying bills or working on your creative endeavors. Airports are surprisingly easy places to get things done. Or don't do any of those things and just chill out and let the well-engineered Cinnabon smell waft over you. There is something liberating about knowing you have nowhere to go and just being, especially if it smells like Bear Claws.
4. Shop Smart: Shop online! Most websites have a liberal return policy and great deals. Unless you are a fan of long bathroom lines, being crammed in with strangers, getting jostled and bumped by Crate and Barrel boxes and endless Christmas Muzak, shop in the comfort of your own footy pajamas. It's just so much better.
5. Drink Smart: Drink less alcohol. Most people try to drink their way through the holidays: A tried and true method, right? There's not enough booze to get you through listening to Katie's boyfriend drama. So don't even try. Anticipate and prepare.
6. Laugh Smart: Have a good sense of humor about all of the mayhem that you're sure to endure. Yes, the holidays only come around once a year (thankfully), but with some smart planning they might actually be pleasant this time around.
Be smart. Be safe. Be merry and have a great holiday season. If not, there's always next year.
Follow Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drbenmichaelis