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Viewpoint: Tips for managing holiday and family stress

The lights are all coming on, the trees are going up, and the family is flying in to stay for a few days. It’s holiday time, and that means it’s time for a hefty helping of holiday stress.

Holiday stress is a peculiar brand of anxiety because of its unique triggers. For many people who already struggle with stress, anxiety and depression year-round, the holidays are one giant emotional hurdle. Unwrapped gifts, manic office parties and obligation-heavy family dinners send many regular, emotionally stable people off the edge of holiday sanity.

So, just in case there are a few Weber State University students out there struggling with the prospect of dealing with the holidays, here are a few tips for staying sane during the month of December:

1. Set expectations for money. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America Survey, 76 percent of Americans reported money as the most significant source of stress, and money seems to fly out the door during the holidays. If money is an issue (and it always is), be realistic and open with family and friends about how much you’re going to spend.

2. Take care of your own needs. Don’t overwhelm your already-fragile student psyche with activities that are emotionally and physically draining (or that drain your wallet — see No. 1). Pay attention to your feelings, and say no to some of the party offers.

3. Don’t eat more than you need to. Everyone in your family has his or her favorite holiday recipe, and they’re all bringing 70 servings of it to the party you’re attending. Remember to indulge yourself, but only eat the foods you really love, and eat only sensible portions of them.

4. Keep things in perspective. Consider stressful events in a long-term perspective. The holidays will be stressful, but they will also be enjoyable, and that’s just how it is. Accepting that at the beginning of the month is important.

And, since the most stressful part of the holidays is getting back together with family members, here are a few tips for those fun but stressful holiday family gatherings:

1. Make connections with friends and family. Good relationships with friends and family are important for mental health, and many of these people won’t be around till next December. Viewing the holidays as a chance to reconnect can help alleviate some of the stress.

2. Accept the following: Holiday family stress is triggered by unhappy memories, unlikeable relatives, weakened defenses (cold season, poor eating and sleeping habits, drinking, over-scheduling), changing family dynamics (divorce, death, college), and some family dynamics that refuse to change (the same people, the same jobs, the same dry turkey). These are probably not going to go away.

3. Change things up! Try going to new restaurants, or at least to new family members’ houses. Some stress might simply be caused by the routine of the holidays.

4. Don’t overdo it. Pace yourself. Say no to some things. Go home a little earlier. And put down that last brownie, even if it hurts Aunt Edith’s feelings a little bit.

5. Worry less about things being ideal. Don’t compare yourself to the Norman Rockwell family paintings. Dad doesn’t dress up to carve the turkey, and little Bobby and Sally might have been painted to be well behaved, but they probably weren’t. Family tension, conflict and negativity show up at every family gathering, which also means . . .

6. Don’t expect family miracles. Despite it being a season of goodwill, you can’t decide that the holidays will only have been successful if family members all work through big emotional breakthroughs. Focus on forgiving others, and don’t try to confront difficult issues unless it happens naturally.

The holidays are wonderful and just a little bit awful. Your holiday stress and depression might just be seasonal, but if it isn’t, make sure to talk to a doctor or one of the wonderful counselors at the WSU Counseling and Psychological Services Center.

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