“Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.” ~Sonia Ricotti
It’s that time of year again. The fresh scent of an evergreen fills the house. Strains of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” permeate the airwaves. Once again, I unpack the fragile, ceramic Santa that I made as a gift for my mom when I was five. Suddenly, I’m transported back in time—for better or for worse.
The holidays should be joyous times filled with family and friends, but sometimes the very traditions that give meaning to this season also trigger old fears, hurts, and anxieties. (And if you’re prone to Season Affective Disorder (SAD), the lack of warmth and sunshine can zap your goodwill toward men, and women, too.)
Then last year—after lots of recovery and mindfulness practice—I determined to navigate the holidays in a healthier manner. I decided to accept the reality of my Christmas crazies and choose to respond differently when things (inevitably) became stressful.
Since I was so good at making lists of gifts to buy others and errands to run and obligations to fulfill, why not make a list of ways to manage my emotional well-being? If you’re like me and tend to succumb to the holiday crazies, these strategies may help maintain your sanity, too.
1. Stock up on sanity savers.
When I went through my divorce, my therapist had me make a list of things—such as taking a hot bubble bath or calling a good friend—to do when I became anxious. Even when I’m not in all-out crisis mode, this form of self-care helps me maintain a more peaceful perspective. By thinking of these soothing activities ahead of time, I know exactly what to do when stressful situations appear.
2. Reel in expectations.
Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as a perfect holiday.” Something will go wrong. My brother-in-law will say something inappropriate at the family dinner. Gifts will get lost in the mail. The turkey will be raw in the middle. The ornaments will not all be evenly spaced on the tree—and it will be okay.
3. Keep a meltdown journal.
When something or someone inevitably pushes my buttons, I make note of it in my “meltdown” journal. I include details about what occurred before my meltdown and record if I was hungry, tired, lonely, or hormonal. Writing it all down helps me recognize patterns and also serves as a safe way to vent my frustrations.
4. Check motives at the door.
Do not, I repeat, do not give anything to anyone if you expect so much as a “thank you” in return. Seriously. One of the worst holiday meltdowns I’ve had in recent years was when a friend didn’t express (what I felt was) the proper amount of gratitude for my gift. This year, my presents may be decorated with ribbons, but they will not come with strings attached.
5. Own your inner Grinch.
If you’re feeling cranky because it seems like you always give more than your receive, or visa versa, set a limit for spending or call a truce on personal gift-giving. My very generous friends and I did this years ago, and it immediately improved my holiday spirit because I didn’t have to fret that my Christmas gifts were “good” enough.
6. Break up with tradition.
If you’re doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, you’re going to become nuttier than a fruitcake. (Albert Einstein wasn’t necessarily talking about the holidays when he coined the definition of insanity, but it applies.)
Hearing “Jingle Bells,” the smell of gingerbread, or seeing your friends’ cheesy family photo holiday cards may inspire warm feels, or be cruel reminders of stressful, lonely times.
For example, when I was single, it was hard being the third-wheel at New Year’s Eve dinner parties, so rather than accept invitations that made me uncomfortable, I established a new tradition. New Year’s Eve became a time for quiet contemplation. (And now share that tradition with my honey.)
7. Be mindful for goodness sakes.
When anxiety strikes, it’s easy to stuff feelings, along with a mountain of sugar cookies. Over the holidays I double my effort to stock up on healthy snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. Then I post the question “Why?” on the fridge to help remind me of my motivations before I indulge. If I really want that treat, then I proceed; but if I’m eating because I’m anxious, I try to sooth myself with a more healthy activity. (See Tip 1.)
Simply reflecting on this list, makes me aware of how the holidays can affect my mood, and helps me reclaim the festive season. Now I can revision the season as a time to be grateful for all the positive aspects of my life, and the progress I’ve made since I made the decision to release the ghosts of Christmas’ past.
About Brigid Elsken Galloway
Brigid Elsken Galloway is a journalist and editor who’s reported for NPR and contributes to various publications and websites. She is also on the faculty of the Institute for Conscious Being. This fall, Brigid published her first collection of essays, entitled The Nature of Things: Twenty-four Stories About Embracing Reality. She blogs at Adventures of a Southern Buddhist Catholic.