Managing Holiday Season Challenges

The holiday season is typically advertised as a time of festivity and joy. For many people this portrayal is fairly accurate, but for many others the holidays can be a difficult time for a multitude of reasons. Three of the more common challenges are family conflict, depression, and over-indulgence. Below are some ideas about how to manage these issues and make the most of the holidays.

Family conflict

Have you ever had the experience of interacting with certain family members and suddenly feeling like you’re 8  years old again? If so, you’re not alone. Early family relationships can be very powerful, and they have a way of pulling family members back into old relationship patterns – and often dysfunctional ones. This is especially common when family members who don’t typically see much of each other during the rest of the year suddenly spend a significant amount of time together. Add alcohol to the mix and get Uncle Joe talking about politics, and before you know it a nice after-dinner conversation has exploded like an industrial-sized Christmas cracker. So, how to avoid such an unpleasant situation?

1)    Be mindful of alcohol consumption. It is no secret that alcohol decreases inhibition and increases impulsivity. Therefore, it is much more likely that someone will say something offensive and/or escalate an argument while under the influence.

2)    Avoid certain topics of conversation. Politics is a classic conversation minefield, but there may also be other no-go-zones particular to your specific family.

3)    Manage your emotions. We are all human (yes, even Uncle Joe) and so we are all susceptible to emotional triggers. If this happens to you, simply take a time-out. Leave the room and maybe get some fresh air. You may be surprised at how much a few slow, deep breaths can calm you down and help you face the family once again.

Depression

When the autumn and winter months hit and the days get shorter and rainier, it is common for many people to feel their mood sag to some degree. For some people, however, their symptoms can be much more severe and may be indicative of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). If you notice a significant and problematic change in your mood that seems to follow the seasons, this might be the case for you. If so, using a “SAD lamp” may help to alleviate some of the symptoms. In addition, talking to a doctor and counsellor could be helpful for finding solutions to this problem.

Another reason that some people experience emotional challenges during the holidays is that it reminds them of unhappy holiday memories from when they were younger. Essentially, this is a conditioned response – our minds create such a strong connection between the holiday season and our emotional memories, that as soon as we hear the first note of “Jingle Bells” we get plunged back into that old emotional state. If this is the case for you, it likely indicates that there are old emotional wounds that have not yet healed. Once again, talking to a counsellor can be very helpful. In addition, journaling about our childhood experiences and how they might be connected to current experiences can also be helpful in freeing us from age-old emotional triggers.

Over-indulgence

This problem can manifest in a variety of ways, but typically shows up in the areas of eating, drinking, and spending, ranging from mild to extreme. On the mild end of the spectrum this might simply result in a stomach ache, a hang-over, or a little less pocket change left over for your morning latte. Maybe not the end of the world, but still probably not ideal. However, on the extreme end of the spectrum, over-indulgence can result in such problems as sickness, broken relationships and serious financial difficulties. Here are three strategies to help you avoid the negative consequences of over-indulgence:

1)    Set an intention before you begin. This applies to all three of the common pit-falls. Setting an intention can help us stay within reasonable boundaries. For instance, set yourself a one-plate limit before the big dinner, a two-drink limit before the party, and a strict dollar amount before shopping.

2)    Think of the consequences. Over-indulgence typically stems from impulsivity. We’re in the moment, we can anticipate the rush of instant gratification, and we don’t think much beyond that. However, it is possible to imagine into the future and anticipate the likely fall-out. Doing so can help us stay on track.

3)    Ask for help. If you struggle with over-indulgence in a mild way, talk to a trusted friend or family member about it – ideally one who can be with you when you’re put to the test. Tell them your intentions and preferences regarding eating, drinking and/or spending. Simply telling someone else can help us feel more accountable for our actions. If your struggle shows up in a more extreme way, seeking formal help is highly recommended. Speaking to a counsellor can be of great benefit, and there are also a variety of support groups that can help with many different compulsive behaviours.

Regardless of what challenges you may commonly experience during the holiday season, it is possible to change these patterns and approach the holidays with a whole new mind-set. Who knows, you might even start looking forward to dinner with Uncle Joe!

By Graham Walker, MA, RCC