'Tis the season for spending time with family, friends, and for many – a therapist. But holiday blues, nagging family stress and overindulgence can be avoided if you set realistic expectations, according to a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The holidays are a busy time for clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who see their schedules fill with some clients who do not get along well with in-laws or other family members, some who experience depression from not having enough money to buy gifts and others who eat and drink too much.
“Expectations and lack of preparation are the most common causes of holiday strife,” said Sonia R. Banks, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Center for Psychological Services and Development. “Put those two together and you have a time bomb.”
Unrealistic expectations usually come from a family member’s fantasy of what the holidays are going to look like. When reality sets in and it does not reflect expectations, feelings of disappointment often result and are taken out on other family members.
“Make realistic expectations,” said Banks. “The goal isn’t to get to the perfect Christmas, it’s the process of trying to create the happiest time out of the moments you have.”
Lack of preparation stems from not realizing the true meaning of the holidays – peace, love and the celebration of life, she said.
“So if you’re in that place, it doesn’t matter how many gifts you or anyone else gets, whether the turkey is burned, or the kids don’t take out the garbage,” said Banks.
If you expect to see people you do not get along with, Banks suggests you call them now and declare a moratorium on hostility during the holiday. That way, all of you can avoid an awkward morning around the Christmas tree or dinner table.
Putting yourself in the holiday spirit and spending time with everyone in the family also will help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
“Wear a funny hat, try not to get engaged in difficult conversations about politics and religion, do something to interact with others such as playing touch football,” she said.
With food and alcohol at the center of most celebrations, the holidays can be especially difficult for alcoholics and people with weight problems. Stay away from both, advises Banks.
After the holidays, more people are expected to seek help because they did not get the gift they wanted, a loved-one did not show up, or they are depressed that a year has passed and nothing has changed in their lives.
“Just remember what the holidays represent,” said Banks. If you can keep that as your focus, your holidays will be happier.