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Self-Help For The Holidays

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The Major Winter Holidays (Christmas, etc.) and the turning of the New Year are rapidly upon us. This is also the year we celebrate the turning of the Millennium. At first glance, here are many reasons to celebrate, to be joyous, to cultivate gratitude. And yet - for many persons out there - perhaps yourself - perhaps someone you love - this holiday season will be experienced as a major source of stress - more a time of pain than pleasure.

I'm aiming this month's editorial/essay towards that group of persons out there who find this time of year to be more oppressive than peaceful. My aim is hopefully to help such persons to cope a little better with the challenges that they will face in the coming weeks.

The Nature of the Problem

Under the best of conditions, the holidays are a stressful time filled with gift lists, wrapping, travel, cards to send, family members, etc. This sort of stress can bring out the worst in anybody - and can unleash problems that people usually have under better control.

Persons dealing with various conditions (such as mental illnesses, life transitions and adjustments, etc.) are particularly at risk of exacerbations (increases) of their problems occurring during the holidays. For instance:

  • The holidays mandate that you spend time with family. But for many survivors of abuse, alcoholism, and/or mentally ill parents - family is not a good scene and gatherings create more harm than good by resurrecting dysfunctional family patterns.
  • You are supposed to be with loved ones during the holidays - but for many persons who have lost spouses, children or parents, the holidays are times when past memories of happier days come flooding up. The mandate of being with loved ones can create a situation of intense feelings of aloneness when those you are attached to are no longer present.
  • Persons with binge eating problems are placed at increased risk of binging when faced with the flood of binge-enabled goodies piled high on every counter. Persons with anorexic tendencies, on the other hand, are tempted to triple their resolve to be 'good' (e.g., in complete control of their food intake). Because it is unnatural to not eat cookies and cakes when they are in front of you, an anorexic person finds herself in a catch-22 situation - she loses if she doesn't eat and she loses if she eats. The result is mental pain and sometimes further self-destructive behavior.
  • The real and imagined mandate of holiday cheer (seeing other happy people, and also feeling pressure to be happy yourself) leaves depressed persons (who already see and feel things negatively) at increased risk of feeling excluded and "less-than" others, as well as also being at risk of further socially isolating themselves. Similar feelings of being incapable of celebrating, or of being excluded from participating in the celebration can push other persons dealing with identity issues towards self-mutilation.
  • Recovering substance abusers have to fight the tide of 'partying' that occurs during the holidays (unknowing gift givers frequently give alcohol - and alcoholic beverages are handed out like candy at many family gatherings). Active substance abusers of course find no incentive to stop during this time.
  • All the travel, visiting of relatives and preparations can knock people off their medication schedules, sometimes with heavy results (e.g., persons medicated for bipolar disorder who go into a manic episode when their medications are disrupted). The same principle applies to all medicines (such as insulin for diabetics, heart medicines for cardiac patients, etc.) - bad results follow when medication schedules are not maintained.

Now - the intention of any holiday celebration is to create a sacred space in the stream of life - a 'holy-day' - something different than our normal routine. Sacred spaces can be good things that help us to connect with others, with deity, with our values, help us to gain perspective. But - when our lives are already overwhelming and then the ritual of the holiday demands additional overwhelming things be done - or stresses us beyond what we can handle by asking us to do what we cannot do - the sacred space does not open properly and we cannot benefit from it.

Our goal then is to reduce the stress and temptations we experience during the holiday season so as to maximize our opportunities for creating that sacred space. The time tested best way to handle this task of stress reduction is to create a stress management plan.

How To Make A Coping Plan

Making a stress-management plan takes a little work - but not too much. Like any skill it gets easier as you practice it. Developing and using a stress-management plan can really pay off in terms of your health, stress levels and self-esteem. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

Start by writing down the answers to these questions:

1) What are the things that really stress me out this holiday season?
Who are the people that really stress me out during the holidays?

The list you develop will be influenced by the problems you are dealing with.

  • There might be people who really freak you out - relatives, friends (or so-called-friends).
  • There might be places that really freak you out - visiting people at the house where you were abused, for instance.
  • There might be tasks that really freak you out - the prospect of shopping for the perfect gifts for people you don't even like, or just traveling, for example.

List as many people, places and things that really stress you as you can think of.

2) Do I need to avoid anyone or anything this year?

Some family and friends and some things you may like to do can be bad for your health - even if you love those people and things.

If you are drinking too much you need to avoid alcohol, bars, persons who you drink with, trips to the store across the street from the bar, etc. If you have an eating problem you need to avoid second helpings, not eating at all, persons who insist that you take home cakes that no one ate at dinner, etc. If you are depressed or grieving you need to avoid being alone.

If you are anticipating a family visit and your family is more hurtful than loving - consider whether your visit should be shorter rather than longer or even whether it should occur at all. What is important is that you don't get sucked into a dysfunctional family pattern that will lead to your being abused, encouraged to go off your medication if you're on it, called names, etc.

Needless to say - if you are in recovery from a drug or alcohol problem and your holiday plans put you on a crash course with people who still drink or drug - you should avoid these people completely - even if they are your family or your best friends. Don't put yourself at risk.

Now that you know what will stress you out - and what and who you should avoid - try answering the following question:

3) What should I do in order to stay healthy and safe - to stay away from the people, places and things that will make my life unhealthy and unsafe.

In answering this question - try to separate things that you'd like to avoid but are good for you from things you'd like to avoid that are bad for you. For instance, many depressed persons are stressed out by being around people - but being around people is actually a good thing for most depressed persons (at least for a little while). Total isolation is usually a self-destructive thing.

Here are some examples of things you can do to make yourself safer and healthier this holiday season:

Do Something Spiritual:

Revisit your place of worship. Many find needed comfort, perspective, community and nourishment within their religious communities.

Do Something Recreational and/or Social:

Attend a community event (lecture, theater, music, etc.), join a community group, plan an event with friends who care about you, tell someone you care about that you care about them.

Do Something Healthy and Satisfying:

Pick up an old hobby you've neglected, call an old friend you haven't spoken to for a while, clean your house, bake a batch of cookies and give them to people, make a commitment to volunteer work, organize your storage, walk the dog, finish that home improvement project you have been putting off.

Take Care of Your Body:

Eat and exercise in moderation. Don't keep fattening leftovers around. Don't accept gifts of cookies or cakes - or accept them and then re-give them to people who can appreciate them better than you (there is a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from giving). Take the stairs instead of the elevator - Walk a few blocks instead of driving there. Take a yoga or fitness class and learn to stretch your body in healthy ways. Three times per week take a walk for one half hour. These small relatively painless changes in your lifestyle can make a difference in your mood and self-esteem.

Talk About What Bothers You:

Talking about your problems is part of a healthy way of coping with them. Discuss what bothers you with receptive family members and friends. Professional helpers like counselors and therapists can also be very good people to talk with. In addition to being more knowledgeable about the problems you are dealing with than your family and friends, their 'outsider' stance and commitment to confidentiality makes them ideal people with whom to discuss things you are ashamed about or that you don't want your family or friends to find out about.

For persons struggling with recovery from drug and alcohol abuse there is no one better to talk to than your own personal sponsor - who can be found for free at your nearest AA or NA meeting (sponsors are recovering alcoholics and addicts who keep their own recovery strong by helping others to gain sobriety).

Use Self-Help Resources:

There are many sources of detailed self-help instruction - both online and in libraries and bookstores in the self-help or psychology sections. Start right here at with the marvelous Psychological Self-Tools topic center - a full online book written by our staff.

Once you've developed your plan - examine it to see if you've got your bases covered. You will want to make sure that you've identified ways that you will cope with the situations that are most stressful for you. Adding an extra healthy activity for yourself can't hurt either. Grumble all you like - but if you try it you are more likely than not to actually enjoy it.

Most Importantly - Follow Your Plan!

The coping plan you've developed is now your own personal road map for negotiating the best route for you through your holiday landscape. USE THIS MAP TO INSURE THAT YOU DON'T GET LOST WHILE DRIVING! This is to say - actually do the things you've said that you will do to keep yourself safe and healthy this holiday. The best plan in the world won't help you if you don't follow it. The world is filled with fools who get lost unnecessarily because they are too proud to look at a map.

And finally - please accept my warmest hopes and wishes for your safe journey. It's cold out there!

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Director,

Dombeck, M.J. (Dec 1999). Self-Help For The Holidays [Online]. .