How to Survive the Holidays

This column comes to you in the midst of the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years. This is a particularly stressful time for everyone, but women in particular. It turns out women have much more to do at this time than men and it is this time crunch that makes them most vulnerable. The month-long collection of parties, obligations, and family gatherings produce joy, sorrow, guilt, pleasure, and the list goes on and on. Added to this, television and movies that tend to portray holidays as especially important so the stress is only heightened. For the holidays to be healthful there are two general strategies: 1) mental health and 2) physical health, realizing that the two are inextricably linked.

Holiday Mental Health 

We want the holidays to be happy and merry: Why else do we wish everyone Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year? However, it is well known that the end of the year holiday season is one of enormous stress. The stress comes from the realization that there is not enough time or money or ideal family and friend relationships for everyone to be happy. It does not have to be so stressful if certain steps are taken to preserve one’s sanity and spirits. 

Most important is to have realistic expectations. Foremost on the list of expectations must be that everything will not be perfect: family relationships, friends, food, decorations, and on and on. Women must ask for help with holiday chores including shopping, preparing food or at least assisting with that. Men can help with running errands and helping with the household work.

If the holidays seemed to be perfect in the past, then that is a wonderful memory and should remain just that, a warm memory. However, the present is not the past and cannot be. Understand that the holidays do not have to be perfect. If there are certain family members that always disrupt your holiday, minimize the exposure to them and the same for problematic friends. However, it is potentially a joyful time and nothing brings greater relief than to be able to honestly forgive or forget the events or actions that have been painful in the past. Reconciliation is a gift at any time of year, but especially wondrous during the holidays. Finally, if the holidays are proving too stressful and too anxiety provoking, excuse yourself for a while and just avoid the fray, returning when you are sufficiently recharged.

Almost paradoxically, planning for the holidays is absolutely essential and will reduce stress. Think about how many parties you really can attend or host. How many family gatherings are essential and how many are ritualistic, but not required. When you are entertaining, be sure others are enlisted to help including the reluctant spouse. Don’t be competitive or try to top everyone else’s party: Your event should be something that reflects your tastes and you not someone else. Decorations should also be for the season and satisfy your esthetics not the latest issue of Southern Living. And with regard to gifts and parties, it is best to budget for the season and stick to it. Don’t let spending exceed the money available since this will bring problems the rest of the year. Commercialism during the season is impossible to avoid, but remember it is the “thought that counts” not the gift or expense of the gift.

It is OK to feel bad during the holidays. Holidays are a time of chaotic encounters that usually bring welcome, tender, early sparks of enthusiasm. But as the days pass with multiple events, they may become tiring and frustrating. That is to be expected – it is even possible that instead of being happy all the time you feel a little sad. That too is normal and part of the season. You should accept the full range of emotions that the season brings as acceptable because they are uniquely yours. If sadness becomes overwhelming, then help should be sought.

Holiday Physical Health

The old saying is “eat, drink and be merry,” but that is about the worst advice one can give or take during the holidays. The whole strategy for this time of year (indeed, for the entire year) must be “eat and drink in moderation so that you can be merry and live another year.” This time of year is the greatest barrier to physical health that we have before us. The first key to surviving all the parties, meals and other social occasions is to begin by restricting the number of invitations one accepts, and equally important is to plan a rigorous schedule of exercise that you absolutely adhere to no matter the weather or the rush of the season.

In preparing this column I found a wonderful web advice page entitled Healthy Eating for the Holiday (PDF) that actually is a part of the UCLA dining website and quite good. They give seven strategies to make it through a party or seated dinner that I will briefly summarize. 

First, the party or dinner is about the people not the food. Concentrate on the company and make that the main event, not the food and drink. Second, know what is good for you and on your diet and choose those things that you should eat not all that are served. The UCLA Holiday Food Choice Table is a guide to healthy choices.

A third strategy is do not go to any party or dinner famished. It is better to go after consuming some healthy snacks so that the temptation to eat all the unhealthy food is resistible because you are not too hungry. Another tip is to offer to bring a healthy dish so that you know you will have at least one item that is healthy to eat. Alcohol is usually served in abundance and during holidays there are often richer and more unhealthy alcoholic concoctions than at other times. Moderation is the most important recommendation with regard to alcohol, which has calories and, more importantly, can impair judgment with regard to food and more libations. Two drinks for men and one for women or nothing for either is the safest bet. Finally, take small portions and eat slowly – see if you can be the last one to finish your plate at a seated dinner or the first to leave the buffet table at a party. The goal is to consume as little bad food as possible and eat all food in moderate quantities.   

If you have the symptoms listed below interfering with your holiday, then it is likely that the reason is stress. Manage it by cutting back and exercising or, if severe, seeing your physician.

Signs of Holiday Stress

  • Headaches
  • sleep disturbances
  • Short Temper
  • Upset Stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle aches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low job satisfaction

The Bottom Line

Holidays are commemorations of special occasions, the Pilgrims’ harvest feast, the birth of Jesus, and Jewish Festival of Lights. New Year is the celebration of another year to improve oneself. These are occasions that can have deep religious and secular meaning. Try to keep the holidays in perspective and remember the original meaning and the meaning that they have for you and your family and friends. They do only come once a year and that is also worth remembering, no matter what is happening with them, they will soon pass and things will return to “normal.” The best strategy to getting through the holidays so that there will be many more in the future is to focus on what is meaningful and healthful for you and your family during this season. And, yes, do enjoy them.