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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Navigating Stress During the Holidays

By Betty Gebhardt, LPC and Chuck Cusumano

Thanksgiving, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, St. Nicholas Day, Boxing Day, Christmas, and New Years... Whether you've taken a peek at your calendar, entertained any of the deals overflowing your inbox, or admired the storefront windows or neighborhood decor, you know one thing's for certain: The holidays are coming!

This time of year, the air starts to shift as Thanksgiving decorations are stored away and Christmas music begins to fill the air. Our days become filled with office parties, white elephant get-togethers, extended-family meals, rituals, traditions, travel, and more eating, more shopping, and more spending than any other time of the year! And we wonder why we may feel stressed?! Buckle up, friends and family – the year-end roller coaster is taking off.

If the holidays are a time for celebration and enjoying time with those we love, why are they often known for causing so much stress? And, furthermore, is stress always a “bad" thing? I would imagine it’s not challenging for you to answer the first part of that question, as the holidays usually involve travel plans, changes in routines, gift shopping, requests for time off work, and an increased amount of family interactions.

The truth is: “Positive” events – such as holidays, weddings, and job promotions – can be just as stressful to the mind and body as “negative” events – such as losing a loved one, getting into an argument with a loved one, or a job loss.

So, if not all stress is “bad” - what constitutes “good” stress?

“Good” stress is a stressor that’s not TOO extreme. Robert Sapolsky, an American researcher, professor, neuroscientist, and stress expert states that humans love stress that is “moderate, transient, and occurs in a benevolent environment.” Let’s use the example of riding a roller coaster:

Moderate. “Average in amount, intensity, quality, or degree.” On a rollercoaster, there’s a chance you will get queasy (and maybe even throw up), but not decapitated.

Transient. It’s not too long-lasting. You can handle it for a couple of minutes, but if the roller coaster went on for two weeks, it would no longer be manageable.

Occurring in a benevolent environment. Ultimately, we feel that it is safe.

When we feel stimulated by an optimal amount of stress in a safe setting, it’s considered “play.” It’s important to remember, however, that one person’s right amount of “play” is not the same as another’s, and – when not acknowledged – can lead to anxiety and depression.

So, how does this all connect to the holiday season?

It gives us parameters on determining “good” holiday stress versus “bad” stress in order to set us up for success personally, relationally, and financially.

First, we must become intentional about acknowledging and noticing our emotions and feelings.

How do we do that? We start with asking ourselves good questions, and then noticing what the answers provoke for us mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes, we may not be able to determine the exact feeling right away, but our stomach may clench up with our answer to the question.

Let’s look at some questions to ask yourself before gathering for the holidays (Source):

  • “When I think about the holidays, what emotions and thoughts arise?”

  • “How much time is too much time with my family members? How will I know?”

  • “What can I learn about myself and my needs from past holiday experiences?”

  • “What part(s) of the holidays feel beneficial to my mental health and what part(s) feel detrimental?”

  • “What boundaries do I need to set?”

  • “Will I be able to enforce my boundaries if they are not respected? If so, how?”

  • “What are the costs/benefits to my own family?”

  • “Is this an environment that feels safe?”

  • “Have I created an exit strategy?”

Answering these questions honestly to yourself – and then sharing those answers with your partner or an emotionally-safe person in your life – will allow you to feel more in control as you move into the holidays. When we have a plan, we utilize an internal locus of control by believing that the outcomes of our actions are a result of our own abilities, versus feeling powerless to the fleeting demands and expectations of others.

Planning includes asking yourself difficult questions, discussing expectations, setting boundaries, finding balance, and knowing when it’s no longer mentally healthy for you to stay.

These are all intentional steps you can take to decrease feelings of anxiety caused by overwhelming, intolerable, “bad” stress and increase feelings of empowerment as you set parameters for “good” stress by making sure that the stress is moderate, transient, and occurring in a benevolent environment.

If you know you are potentially putting yourself, your spouse, and/or your children into a toxic environment and feel unable to set boundaries in a way that protects your and your family’s overall well-being, consider finding a counselor or a coach to support you in navigating the holidays successfully! Or contact and we will get you to the right place to ensure you have a “good” stress holiday season!


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