It’s a stressful time of year when times are normal — and the second year of the pandemic is anything but normal, especially when combined with inflation, gas prices, food and toy shortages, and shipping delays.
For help in coping, CNN reached out to stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by The American Institute of Stress.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: Why are holidays typically so stressful, even in normal times, and what can we do to reduce that pressure?
Dr. Cynthia Ackrill: We have a lot of expectations as to what we’re supposed to do or feel, right? We have catalogs that show us we need to have the perfect kind of a nice home, decorated to the hilt for the holidays.
We believe that we should have happy families where everyone gets along. We try to do too much, we spend too much, all with an unrealistic expectation that we can provide everything that brings us joy.
It was a lot of pressure before Covid. It’s even more pressure now. So, this is not a time to overextend ourselves — we are exhausted just from processing the last two years! It’s time for reflection. It’s time for more patience, compassion and kindness. It’s time to let go of the maladaptive behaviors of overeating, overdrinking and overspending that can be so much a part of the holidays.
One doesn’t need five Christmas trees to get the meaning of Christmas. Instead, we need to spend personal time to ramp up the behaviors that fulfill us, add meaning and make us stronger.
And I think we do have a wonderful opportunity this holiday season to focus on what really matters to us and our families. An opportunity to scale down unrealistic expectations and do just those things that give each of us meaning and bring us joy.
Start by having a meeting with your family.
Ask each of them to think back through previous holidays and answer this question: “What activities or choices left you with the most positive or meaningful memories? What were unnecessary things we did, or expectations we had, that just set you and the rest of us to feel more frustrated or disappointed instead?”
Begin a proactive conversation with your family.
What’s a win for you — and you and you for this holiday? What are the things that have meant the most to you? What are the activities we did that make you smile when you think about them?
Now, stir it all together.
Each person in the group may have a different reaction, so then the family can sit and decide how to weave all of those wishes together or make compromises.
We don’t want to give up the good parts of the holidays: the pause to reflect on what matters, conversations with family members we don’t usually see, sending cards to people, or sharing memories to let them know we are thinking of them.
But let’s distill the rest down to a better reward versus cost ratio. How can you get the most out of this season and maintain or replenish mind, body and spirit? What can we do that leaves us all smiling and feeling fulfilled?
Finally, make a schedule, or at least a plan.
Decide, as a family, how to work those wins into a holiday schedule and get rid of — or at least set some boundaries — on anything that just uses us up instead. Of course, there are some energy-draining things that need to happen, so how can we build in more energy-recharging time?
It’s a teachable moment.
What a great lesson it is for kids to watch us do that and be a part of it. What a great lesson to say: “What could we do differently this year? What if giving back to the community would fulfill us more than making our traditional list of everything we want?”
Making changes may not be as easy as it sounds. The brain loves habits; the brain loves traditions and rituals. They are pathways that, once created, can be done sort of mindlessly. It takes less energy to repeat a behavior that you’ve often done than it takes to create a new one.
Which is why in relationships, so many arguments are really like a dance you’ve practiced and know well. You’re not really engaged in a new, fresh perspective each time you argue. To change that dance takes some energy — you need to sit back and reflect and ponder. The payoffs are so worth it.