The chorus of a classic holiday tune reminds us that November and December are “the most wonderful time of the year!” And often, they are.
Decorations, family visits, office parties, activities with friends, gift exchanges, entertaining with special meals, and other exciting aspects all contribute to a festive time.
Unfortunately, the holidays can also prompt stress, depression, and anxiety. So much so that major health organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic offer guidelines for coping with the onslaught of negative emotions some people experience.
It’s important to remember that anyone can experience stress and negativity or feel overwhelmed during the holidays. So if you’re someone in recovery, you’re not alone. However, you may have to be more diligent in order to:
- Plan ahead
- Acknowledge your feelings
- Change your definition of celebrating
- Avoid common triggers
These actions help you stay healthy and manage well during the seasonal rush.
Step One: Release Expectations
One challenging aspect of winter festivities is expectation. We have to find the perfect gift, set a stunning table, make more scrumptious treats, be an exceptional host, have the best-behaved children, “put up” with Mother no matter what she says, and not talk back to Uncle Fester about politics at the dinner table.
It’s as though whatever bad that happened January through October will magically disappear if we can just do everything right during the holidays.
This is important to remember if you’re in recovery: You—or others—may feel you have to atone for your past behavior in some way, offer explanations, or meet another set of expectations. You can apologize for the past and still move forward.
Assess the expectations you have for yourself and others. Come to terms with these thoughts. Then, let them go. Simply plan to have a more relaxed, less judgmental holiday.
Step Two: Create a Budget and Stick to It
Money can be a stress trigger for just about anyone. Either there isn’t enough, or we overspend during the holidays to force a concept of happiness.
Review Step One, and then establish a budget that keeps you comfortable with spending. Shop early, and ask people what they really might enjoy receiving instead of exhausting yourself over gift-giving. Think about what else has value, such as doing big chores or sharing a fun activity that’s also free.
Step Three: Give Yourself the Gift of Time
Detail a plan for your time, line by line, such as:
- Who you’ll see
- What you’ll make from scratch vs. buying prepared foods
- When you’ll shop
- What customs you’ll observe
- How many parties you’ll attend
Schedule things and allow for plenty of wiggle room.
Each day, at the top of the plan, also detail your self-care routine. For some people in recovery, this may be attending support meetings or calling a sponsor twice a day instead of daily. It may also include meditation, prayer, or other quiet reflection.
In your self-care routine, remember to eat as healthfully as you can, get regular exercise, and stick to a normal sleep schedule. These habits keep your immune system strong and create positive energy.
The final component in your self-care plan is to breathe. If a relative-stuffed house feels smothering, take a short walk outside. Step away from party chatter and stare quietly into the soft glow of a candle flame for a few minutes. Take a moment to watch the snow fall or the palm trees sway or whatever moves in your environment.
What you give to yourself during this season is just as important as what you bestow onto others.
Step Four: Practice Gratitude
At this time of year, cards, signs, banners, and more remind us to be thankful and to show gratitude. What does this mean? Here are some ways you can do this.
- Write notes and letters of thanks and encouragement. Set out a love note with your partner’s morning coffee; send a card to someone who supported your rehabilitation efforts; or write a letter of encouragement to someone struggling with life right now. Your thoughtfulness is an extension of gratitude.
- Volunteer. You’ll find this action on every Top 10 list for how to be thankful, but it’s true. Positive interaction with other people; choosing to feel connected within your community; or helping individuals or creatures in need create a stronger sense of worth and purpose.
- Host a gathering of people close to you. With Step Three in mind, arrange for a casual get together of individuals who mean a lot to you, especially those who understand and reinforce your path of recovery. Maybe it’s just a group meeting for coffee, or a special lunch, or a walk in the park. At the beginning, simply say what’s in your heart.
- Be an active listener. How you choose to listen to other people is a reflection of your gratitude for their presence in your life and their importance.
- Reflect and appreciate. Pause, breathe, and remember what you’ve accomplished. You’ve made a conscious choice to practice positive wellness. Too often, this vital accomplishment is overlooked because of the factors that started this journey. You have a right to be grateful for the success you’ve achieved so far, and what it means for your future.
Step Five: Be Prepared
Finally, if you’re concerned the holiday season threatens your sobriety or prompts triggers that lead to unhealthy behavior, remember to:
- Stay away from places and things that and even people who don’t support your recovery.
- Have an escape plan ready if a social gathering becomes too uncomfortable. Talk to the host ahead of time about your special circumstances and ask for understanding.
- Keep a resource list of support numbers with you in case you need additional assistance.
With planning and awareness, you can make the best of the holiday season in a way that’s most meaningful for you.
Psychiatry.org: Coping with Holiday Stress.
Forbes: Simple Practices For Managing Holiday Stress.