“Have a holly jolly Christmas” triggers memories of the Rudolph TV show, and it’s a nice wish for a bright, enjoyable holiday season. But for all the holly and all the jolly associated with Christmas, it’s a stressful time for many families, especially during one of the most difficult years we’ve all experienced.

In particular, family issues that hide below the surface all year long frequently explode with the added stresses of the holidays. It seems that everyone is on edge, and nobody knows how to push your buttons and open old wounds better than the people who know you best. You may get along with your siblings and your parents fairly well during the year, but an offhand remark about how you’re handing COVID, the recent election, or holiday planning can leave you angry or defensive. Suddenly you’re trading jabs even if they are in your mind.

Some families handle holiday stress in the opposite way: they act like it really isn’t there. They post happy photos of family gatherings on Instagram, with everyone smiling and tables full of food.  But are those genuine smiles and are all the gadgets and gifts bought on credit?

So how can we make the holidays more than just survivable? 

  1. Recognize your own response while watching for signs of distress in yourself and those around you.

Maybe you’re nervous. Maybe you’re anxious, and maybe you’re flat terrified. Whether or not we’re willing to admit it, most of us are, at the very least, a little unsettled. Please know, there’s nothing wrong with that. Feelings aren’t wrong. They are just indicators for us. In fact, if we deny our emotions, they begin to own or even overtake us. Acknowledge how you feel.  Also note that there is solidarity in a shared sense of identity, even if it is in negative emotions put to good use. It’s why the “IN it together” hashtag is so common. This acknowledges that we’re in the same storm even if we’re in different kinds of boats.

Common symptoms that show mental health is suffering: Taking more time off work than usual, greater use of substances such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs or other numbing agents like sugar or exercise, increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity, inability to sleep or changes in sleeping patterns, deteriorating personal or work relationships, becoming more ‘emotional’, moody or over-reactive to what others say, starting to behave differently that’s out of the norm, changing of eating and sleep patterns, physical reactions such as sweating and increased blood pressure, feeling negative, depressed and anxious most of the time, feeling trapped or frustrated … and believing there’s no solution.

Recognize it. Never try to hide or diminish it. And most of all, address it.

  1. Focus on what you can control and encourage others to do the same.

When we look only at what we can’t control it is easy to get overwhelmed. Pause to consider what you can control. Your attitude. Your response to others. Your self care. What you allow to influence you. How you cope with the stress. The grace you give to yourself and others as we all navigate the uncertainty. Remember your life’s purpose and focus on what is most important in the long run. Sometimes day by day plans is enough.

  1. Eliminate toxic influences and common leadership pitfalls.

 Social media and the news are full of hype and speculation. “Experts” are appearing from everywhere providing their predictions and eyewitness accounts. Follow only reputable links like those from the CDC and the Governor’s website. Limit the amount of time spent listening to the news, reviewing the stats and retelling the stories to those on your team. Read it to prepare, not to predict. This pandemic is a first for everyone, so no one will have all the answers. Release the tension of perfection, and allow flexibility for mis-steps. It is ok to not have all the answers. Know what you know, and that’s it for now.

  1. Create healthy routines and promote healthy routines for those around you.

Encourage work life balance, and begin by setting a hard stop time to log off.  Make sleep a priority because it is the bedrock of emotional stability. Make hydration and healthy eating a priority because they provide the nourishment needed to make rational decisions.

Move your body by walking or doing your favorite exercise, to reduce cortisol levels and promote endorphins in your body. Supporting your body is key to combating stress. Take time to find your own personal outlet for overcoming crisis and building resilience (e.g., pick up a hobby, give to others, talk with a counselor, exercise).

  1. Support connection with others in new and creative ways.

Humans were made for connection, so join a zoom group that is focused on finding peace, or a Bible study that reminds you of hope. Reconnect with loved ones, and support those in need. Connecting with others and supporting those in need keep your mind off turning inward and more importantly, prevents your thoughts from running wild.  If you lead a team, having a corporate COVID relief fundraiser can help, especially if you use it to return to employees in need.

  1. Reach out for help and create support systems around your that encourages getting help as the norm. Being stressed doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human.

Put reminders in emails regarding help lines, resources, and counseling numbers to call if help as needed. Review your EAP options from work.  Recognize if anxiety seems to be overtaking you, or your feelings suddenly overwhelm you, and reach out. If you find yourself having strong reactions to usual topics or situations, it’s a signal that stress may be boiling inside. Make use of the services available at Care to Change, especially those offered remotely.

  1. And for those of you with a strong value system, or people with faith, remember where to find true peace.

 Scriptures remind us, “You are my Rock. My Redeemer. My ever present help in times of trouble.” … “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock my fortress. I will not be shaken… He is my refuge.”

If stress feel overwhelming, please reach out. It’s why we’re here.

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