Last week, while I was checking out at the grocery store, I overheard a cashier telling a co-worker about an interaction that she’d had with a customer, “I finally just walked away from her. I told her that if she couldn’t respect me, then I was not going to help her.”

This conversation struck me for a couple of reasons. First being that I was familiar with this cashier. I was a regular at that particular store and every time I dealt with her personally, she was always friendly and professional, and since I often refer to my neighborhood (emphasis on ‘hood’) grocery store as a collection of “human potpourri” that was saying something. So, I knew that someone had pushed her to her limits. I was also struck by what was going on behind the scenes of that confrontation. After working at ARC for a while, I’m like a ‘vibe detective.’ I have learned that when it comes to emotions, things aren’t always what they seem, so I find myself constantly trying to get to the nitty-gritty of interactions like the one that the cashier had (the type of interaction that anyone in customer service is more than familiar with, but I digress.) I tried not to eavesdrop and was rewarded for my good behavior when that same cashier had to help me with an issue that I was having with the scanner.

I was extra gracious to her as she helped me (it’s the Midwesterner in me) and she volunteered that it had been a ‘crazy day.’ for her. I blamed Mercury Retrograde, as I am wont to due when I know that it’s that time. She blamed the holidays.

“Yeah,” she said, “It starts earlier and earlier every year.”

As I left the store, I realized that she may be on to something. It didn’t even feel like we’d handed out all of our Halloween candy before carols started playing, Hallmark started airing their Christmas movies en masse, and the commercials on TV took a sudden and sharp yuletide turn. As the countdown clock starts for The Big Holiday, the pressure begins to mount.

How are we going to get everything done? Who’s coming to town (other than Santa?) Real tree or artificial? Are we getting professional photos for our Christmas card? Who’s picking up Grandma from the assisted living facility? How much do we spend on gifts? Who’s got what food allergy/intolerance? Do we put a ban on talking about politics?

It’s enough to make even the most festive of us a little edgy.

All of which begs the most important question, is it really the most wonderful time of the year?

I know that I feel my own anxiety symptoms rise with every Facebook meme featuring a Christmas countdown. I have more than a few friends who have their trees up and their halls fully decked on November 1, and I envy their enthusiasm. I enjoy Christmas, but I find the lead up to the big day to be more stressful than joyful. Turns out I’m not alone. One survey done by Think Finance showed that 45% of Americans would choose to skip the holidays altogether than endure the stress. There are many reasons for these less than jolly feelings. Individuals who experience anxiety during the holidays site everything from the financial burden to the overscheduling of events and end of year deadlines, and even overindulgence in food and drink. There is also the weight of expectations as some people feel the need to make each holiday season better than the last, (and of course, Instagram worthy.) It’s no wonder that for nearly every person who can’t wait for the holidays, there is one who wants nothing more than to hibernate until January 2.

The link between depression and the holidays is nothing new. It’s a challenging time for people who are in the midst of grief as well as those who are already struggling emotionally in general. All of the festivities can exacerbate the feelings of alienation that some individuals may already be dealing with. Add in the fact that it’s also dark for the majority of the day and you’ve got a recipe for angst. Depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, they are both believed to be due to over-reactivity of the stress response system, which sends into overdrive emotional centers of the brain, including the “fear center” in the amygdala. So, it’s important to address both when it comes to feeling out of the holiday spirit. Even if you are unable to put your finger on why you are reacting negatively this time of year, there are ways that you can make a season a little brighter.

Writing down the things that weigh on your mind and spirit is a good start. Seeing your feelings in black and white makes them more manageable than when they are just spinning around in your brain. You can distinguish between what you can fix (spending 1/3 of your salary on gifts.) and what you cannot (wishing your aunt wouldn’t ask you about your relationship status…again) I’ve gotten into the habit of listing ALL of the things that are worrying me in specific situations and I can say that more often than not, I am thoroughly entertained by my thought process. It helps me get a little distance from my fears, and fact check them as well. Feelings are not facts, and listing and reading off my fears plays a big role in being able to ease them.

Set a budget! Between office secret Santa, family, friends and assorted parties, you can go broke before the first annual airing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s important to budget for the holidays BEFORE you begin shopping. Prioritize gift amounts and work diligently from that budget. There is nothing wrong with homemade gifts for co-workers, friends and party hostesses. My sister in law gifted me once with a fantastic homemade sauce, a great bottle of wine and a crockpot recipe that incorporated the sauce. Not only was it incredibly thoughtful, but it was something both she and I knew that I would use. I have a close friend who is an amazing baker, and I look forward to a goodie bag from her each and every year. I may not remember who got me the Christmas cookie candle from Bath and Body Works, but I remember the cookies in that goodie bag!

Boundaries go a long way in helping to deal with holiday stress. We all struggle with saying “no,” but it seems downright blasphemous to turn people down during the holidays. Implementing and utilizing boundaries will go far in saving your holiday, your relationships and your sanity. You don’t have to RSVP ‘yes’ to every single party you are invited to, you don’t need to volunteer for every clothing drive or Nativity scene you are asked to participate in either. The holidays are not an excuse to burn the candle at both ends. There are events that you have to attend and ones that are optional and you are allowed to exercise discernment.  I know that as bummed as I get when a friend says that they can’t make it to our annual holiday festivities, I’d rather miss them then feel that they are there against their will. If you feel guilty about not going to a party or event, reach out to the host and make a plan to get together after the holidays. I look most forward to one-on-one hangs with my friends after the new year has begun because we don’t feel so rushed and harried, and we tend to have a LOT to catch up on since we last saw each other. It’s quality time versus obligatory attendance.

Just like you don’t have to go to every party you’re invited to, you don’t have to attend every argument either. Boundaries extend to any sort of drama that involves your family. Let’s face it, nearly every family can claim to put the “fun” in dysfunction, and in this day and age, there seems to be more to tear us apart than bring us together. When you’re staring down a long period of time in an enclosed space with members of your extended family it can seem like there aren’t enough coping techniques in the world to get you through. If you want to order a cease-fire with your aunt and politics, or that cousin who seems to bring up any sort of injustice they feel has been done to them by another family member every time you’re all together, start those peace talks prior to the holiday. Is it difficult? Absolutely. Can they go south in record time? Yes, but it will go a long way to ensure that the actual day is that much less stressful. At best, you could reach a new level of understanding with your relatives, at worst, they decline your invite after you’ve laid down the law, and you have one less thing to worry about. The holidays are a time of peace and goodwill, but it’s also a time for you to be able to enjoy the people you love, and sometimes, you have to love people from a distance in order to enjoy them.

Practice self-care! Yes, we’re advocating for this trendy topic yet again. Self-care doesn’t have to be a pedicure or facial, although those are both top-notch ideas. Setting aside time to exercise, do yoga, meditate and even just breathe are important to maintaining your sanity during the season. We often find that with our busy holiday schedules we let our routines fall to the wayside, and part of those routines are the things that we do for the benefit of our mental health. My sister makes certain that she has set aside time for a run or workout every day during the holidays, even Christmas Day! It’s her chance to step away from the chaos for a minute, connect back with herself, and do something that is good for her so that she can fully enjoy her time with family and friends.

Self-care can also be checking in with a therapist for some sessions if you find that your negative feelings are not going away. Drs. Fielder and Huser strongly advocate seeking out help before things become unmanageable. Sometimes your feelings go deeper than not being able to find the specific toy that your kiddo has been clamoring for, and that stress can’t be helped with a good yoga session. Talking with a licensed professional can help assess your specific issues and allow you to collaborate on a plan of action based on YOU. We always say at ARC that anxiety is not a “one size fits all” issue, and when you find yourself unable to cope, even after trying some strategies you’ve learned over time, you might need to talk with someone who can be objective and give you sound advice that is based on you as an individual and also based in science.

The holidays don’t have to equate to stress and anxiety. They can be a fantastic opportunity to connect with family and friends, reflect on the passing year and prepare for the new one. Being proactive in your planning and expectations goes a long way in making sure that you are fully able to get the most out of the season. If you feel more dread than joy at the upcoming holiday season, make sure you take time to really figure out the underlying source of your stress, before you take it out on a poor cashier.

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