by Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

“The holidays are a time when family systems come together. They are also a time when we are reminded of when loss has pulled a family apart. Either one can cause stress and distress. Add that to the stress of traveling, preparation of special meals, purchasing gifts, meeting high expectations on top of the daily stresses of regular life and you have a recipe for stress overload,” said Katie Anderson, a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane. “However, there are ways to reduce that stress and strategies to find more joy in the season which is what the holidays are supposed to be all about.”

Anderson added that the holidays can be stressful anywhere, but in Spokane, the winter season with its darkness and cold can make them particularly challenging. Winter is more taxing on mental health than other seasons. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD can all be triggered during the cold months even before holiday stresses are added into the mix.

Anderson recommends that the first thing you cross off your list for the holidays is perfectionism. There is pressure to make events perfect and as festive as possible and to create special memories. Ironically, when we try to force moments of cheer, we can create pain and stress. Instead of perfectionism, strive for good enough. Let go of the idea that everything needs to be exactly right or all is doomed. Be aware of when we are placing high expectations on others including children and parents and try to dial down those expectations.

She encourages people to rethink expectations like we are going to solve our riffs and disagreements over turkey and stuffing. Try to go to a place of acceptance. Accept what is going on right now. Anderson goes even further and suggests a concept called radical acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean approval, agreeing with or giving in. It means relentlessly accepting the reality of what is. A good way to modulate stress in the holidays is to focus on what is instead of focusing on what could be. Let that be good enough.

Though we think of the holidays as a time of joy, they can also be a time of loss, according to Anderson. We remember people who are no longer with us. We can think of things we no longer have. During the holidays we can find ourselves in the dark night of our soul. How do we respond to the bright colors of the season when we are feeling so dark?  We don’t have rituals to honor loss built into the season. That can place a strain on all of us.

Anderson encourages people to not be in denial about what can sometimes be searingly painful parts of the holidays. She suggests writing down a list of what is hard and what is joyful about the holidays. Getting it down on paper helps. Ask yourself what is no fun and what is fun. What parts are good or at least okay? Tell yourself that you are going to make space for both the joy and the pain. Discuss your list with a trusted someone beforehand. When we validate both our anger or pain and our joy, we can feel fully human.

Navigating the holidays successfully involves a great deal of self-care, Anderson added. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and are eating in a reasonably balanced way. Don’t use alcohol to cope. Try to move your body every day. Get outside every day. Keep close contact with friends. Take advantage of tried and true outlets that help you feel calmer and happier. If you are traveling, bring a book or movie that will make you laugh. It is important to engage in stress-reducing activities before going into a stress-inducing situation.

If you are lucky enough to have a few people at holiday gatherings who bring relief to you instead of stress, lean into them. If there is loss is in the family, address it. Make room for sadness and grief. Move into that pain, then move back out. Make room for family members who are out of town or have died. Make space to bring them in. Make room for the whole range of emotions. Move into pain and joy and move back out.

Often in families, there is conflict, Anderson noted. Gatherings bring together different stages of life that involve members of the family pulling away while others want to get closer. There are different belief systems. Those differences can either be a cause for interest and mutual sharing or can be a cause for conflict and collision.

Before deciding to engage in a difficult conversation during the holiday season, get your body to a calm place, suggested Anderson. You need your body to be calm in order to keep the logical part of the brain online. One approach to making sure your body is calm is to focus on breathing. Get your breathing as steady and regulated as possible. Focus on breathing around the heart or breathing through the belly. Another option is to tense certain muscles and then release them which releases tension. Then, decide whether this is a conversation you want to engage in. You don’t have to engage in every difficult discussion that is brought up. Consider how you want to engage and why. If you do decide to engage, go slowly. Difficult conversations can become increasingly charged and pick up speed as they go. It is okay to take time for your response to make sure something you say is something you would stand with six months from now. It’s okay to take a break in the bathroom or outside and ponder over what you want to communicate.

If your family is one where difficult conversations tend to arise frequently, find commonality over shared in-the-moment experiences. Go for a hike or a walk or look for Christmas lights to look at. It is okay to go outside and take a break with the people in the gathering you trust. Come ready with board games or go to the movies together. These activities create topics of conversation about a current event instead of difficult past topics.

Anderson stressed that if the point of the holidays is to highlight what we don’t have in common, there is no reason to get together. We humans are not built for isolation. We are built for relationships. Before the holidays, remind yourself of ways that you can connect. Look out for commonality. What topics help with connections?

Having family and feeling supported are two separate things. Sometimes we can have very few people in our lives, but we feel connected. The opposite is also true. It depends on the quality of the relationships. The holidays are an opportunity to build connections that we need so badly. Anderson stressed that when we truly connect with our loved ones, we experience the authentic cheer of the holidays.

Katie Anderson is a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane. She has been practicing for twelve years. She currently owns a private practice called Lilac Mental Health. She previously provided individual and family therapy in community mental health and inpatient facilities.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.