12/22/2016 05:31 EST | Updated 12/22/2016 05:31 EST

A Simple Technique To Cope With Holiday-Related Stress

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Old typewriter with text gratitude

It's that time of year again. The holidays are quickly approaching. Excitement, festivities, delicious food, buying gifts, and time with family and friends may be filling your calendar during the coming month. This is a time of celebration, right? It should be. We want it to be. But what I hear most frequently is that this is a time of increased stress.


Let's look at why.

Holiday Shopping

Shopping for gifts is a stressor. And a big one. Unfortunately, the holidays have become increasingly commercialized. It's a frenzied, frenetic time. The sales may be good for the stores, but the emphasis on consumerism is not so good for our spirits. The focus on buying gifts overshadows the meaningful celebration of traditions and family time. This usurps some of the joy -- which should be the hallmark of holiday season -- and leaves people feeling stressed.

Grief and Loss and Feeling Lonely

Around the holidays, I hear many stories of distress from people who have no family. Whether it's due to a loss or irreconcilable family conflicts, some people spend the holidays alone. When they know that others are celebrating with loved ones, they feel even more isolated and depressed. One of my patients went to an Alcoholics Anonymous community celebration in her neighborhood, even though she didn't have a drinking problem. She had lost her mother earlier in the year and had no one else to be with.


Perfectionism also surfaces its pesky head during the holidays. The perfect gift becomes a mission. Fears of purchasing the wrong thing develop into a quest for just the right gift. Again, some of this has to do with the feverish emphasis on buying, which influences people to go out and shop, shop, shop for the perfect gift, at the perfect price. I have always heard my patients express stress around buying gifts, but over the years the complaints have become worse. The anxiety and stress have caused some people to want to avoid gift exchanging altogether.

Family Issues

Planning holiday celebrations can be a juggling act for some families. As the size of extended family increases, so does the stress. Some of this has to do with the difficulty of getting everyone together in the same place, but it also has to do with differences in personalities.

Some people have a strained relationship with certain family members or friends they see at holiday parties. My patients report distress as they imagine what the event will be like and how they will navigate the interaction with someone they don't get along with. (Most times, the anticipation is worse than the actual interaction turns out to be.)

In addition, for those hosting the holidays, it can be very stressful to prepare the house and food, and aspire to an impossible paragon. As a result, the ability to enjoy the time becomes strained, sometimes even impossible.

So, What Do We Do About This?

Be grateful.

We must return to basics. We must practice gratitude. You have probably heard this before and it may seem like a cliché, but it's the absolute truth. The way we think about things influences the way we feel. To stop the cycle of stress that occurs during the holidays, we must practice thinking about what we have to be thankful for.

Forget the gifts, forget the perfect dish, forget the perfectly decorated home. Make these things secondary. Instead, see the holidays as a time for reflection on what you have.

Remember, no family is perfect. No one is perfect. A little family conflict may be unavoidable for some people. Unless it's gross mistreatment, try to skirt disagreements. Agree when you normally wouldn't, swallow a little pride and be more forgiving. It's only one or two days a year. And remember there are many, many people with no family at all. So if you have family, you already have a reason to be thankful.

Look for volunteer work or community service opportunities, host someone who would otherwise be alone, or donate food and clothing to those in need. Those are good gifts.

Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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