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Wellness and Personal Development

Practice Safe Stress for the Holidays

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of time
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness...
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. I realized with all this talk of pressure during the holidays, I needed to distinguish between "Holiday Blues" and "Holiday Stress." Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday stress...is when you have to be with some of those people!

Now here's some lighthearted, seasonal verse I wrote years ago for my radio feature, "Stress Brake." It's called "Cruisin for a Bluesin":

The holidays may bring you down
And you just sing the blues.
To turn those soured tones around
Just play these "don'ts" and "dos."

When you're cruisin on the town
Don't charge away the blues.
If you card the credit crown
Your spouse may blow a fuse.

For fussy dad the streets you'll pound
To find the perfect muse.
He might as well be tied...and bound
He'll never change his views.

If you're alone, don't be house bound
Or cuddle up to booze.
Go ahead. Drown a frown with tears
And folks who can amuse.

Why not try that choral sound
Spread some joyous news.
For when the voices do resound
Then notes you can abuse.

This year don't play the tragic clown
Be bold in how you choose.
You too can prance above the ground
Put on those dancing shoes.

So now we've come full circle round
More lines I must refuse.
Just know when love and friends abound
The blues have many hues.

(c) Shrink Rap Productions 1997

Despite this good advice, we know that when you are with some of those people (or if they are just in your head), real sparks can fly. Here are "The Four 'F's of Holiday Friction: Fantasies, Family, Food and Finances."

1. Fantasies. First, the idyllic image of the holidays portrayed by the media seems so out of touch with reality, it's enough to make you overload on eggnog (with or without the alcohol).

Another pressure is the internalized memories we carry around. I recall my friend Linda, a single parent at the time, berating herself because she couldn't keep up with the holidays -- the cooking, the shopping, the house decorations, etc. -- the way her mother had. Of course, Linda's mom did not work outside the home. I also recall Linda observing that, as a successful professional, she now has the money but lacks the time for the season. Previously, when she wasn't working, she had plenty of time and no money: The "Holiday Catch-22."

And, finally, this season turns most of us into sentimental jelly fish, just waiting to get entangled in the arms of that "true love." Hey, I'm not saying that Mr. or Ms. Holiday Hopeful is as possible or as real as Santa Claus. (My motto: "I no longer count on nor discount any possibility.") Just don't let childhood longings and memories and voices transform you into a frantic, salivating, love-crazed inner child.

The key to managing this friction: gently embrace, don't cling, to magical memories. Discover a blend of magical realism that helps you balance love, work and play in the present.

2. Family. There are so many permutations in families these days, it's got to get a bit confusing. For separated families, a poignant question: which parent (or grandparents) will we be with for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for New Years? I vividly remember an eight year old's lament: "Why can't we just be one family again?"

Another common family issue is when a holiday gathering turns into a competitive arena for sibling rivalry, along with a desire for long-standing recognition and approval. And if you find in these family therapy sessions, I mean holiday reunions, that you can't resist trying to change the attitude and behavior of the parent (sibling or child) that "makes you crazy," patterns which have resisted influence attempts for decades...maybe there's only one solution. Have you thought about getting far out of town for the holidays?

3. Food. The holidays turn most of us into bingeaholics. Running helter skelter, not stopping for lunch, overdosing on the cookies and chocolate that a colleague has brought to work. And discipline at a party is a contradiction in terms. This caloric chaos is not surprising considering the biggest role model of the holidays looks like he hasn't met a single gram of fat in two hundred years that he doesn't love. Hey, Santa Claus hasn't been doing his aerobic workouts either. But wait...Appoint a designated nagger, who will gently remind you when you are overdoing it. Don't chat hovering around the buffet table. Take reasonable portions and move away. Now replace food with some food for thought.

And face it, no matter what you do, or don't do, you are likely to add some pounds on the holidays. So go to the malls and walk briskly for thirty minutes before you start the shopping splurge. You'll spend less and, probably, will eat less as well.

4. Finances. The holidays heighten our monetary consciousness -- from the end of the year financial and psychological accounting (did we meet our financial/family security and career goals?) to the never-ending list of holiday gifts. And as the great Russian novelist, Doestoyevsky, noted: "Consciousness is depression!"

For the first issue, seek a budget counselor, a CPA, a career counselor or even a mental health specialist. For the last, "just say no" to your child's "toy lust." Give your child choices; explain why there are limits. Try this holiday mantra: "Presence not just presents." This season, invest time, not just money.

For big families, be creative. Divide up the gift list with other relatives. You shouldn't have to buy something for everyone. Making a gift definitely adds a personal touch. And, finally, don't overlook a very important person. Get a special gift for yourself.

So the holidays may be a stressful time; a time of feelings of loss and sadness. But with a little higher power humor it also, can be a source of creative expression and sharing. Here's my gift to you:

Double-Edged Depression

Waves of sadness
Raging river of fear
Whirlpooling madness
Till I disappear
Into the depths of primal pain
Then again...no pain, no gain.

Depression, depression
Is it chemistry or confession?
Depression, depression
Dark side of perfection!

Climbing icy spires
Dancing at the ledge
The phoenix only rises
On the jagged edge
In a world of highs and lows
Hey, the cosmos ebbs and flows.

Depression, depression
It's electrifried obsession
High flying depression
Exalted regression?

So I'm pumping iron
And Prozac, too
What else can
A real man do
In a life of muted dreams
How about a primal SCREAM?

Depression, depression
Even inner child rejection
Depression, depression
Hallelujah for creative expression!

(c) Mark Gorkin 1994
Shrink Rap Productions

Just remember, for the holidays and beyond...Practice Safe Stress!