Dialing Down Holiday Stress

It all starts with managing expectations. And then some soul searching

“There are very few people who don’t get stressed out during the holidays,” says Julia James, a Victoria-based life coach and award-winning author of The Mini-Retreat Solution, How to Relax & Refresh Anytime, Anywhere. “We feel we have to do it all – give all these gifts, attend all these parties. There are a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘have tos’.

So how do you cope with all that?

Julia says it’s about shifting your attention away from external expectations and focusing on what you really want to get out of the holiday season – deep down inside. “Ask yourself ‘what do I most want to experience’?”

For some people that might be peace, relaxation and connection. Others might want lots of celebration and fun, but without all the work. Regardless, you have to accept that what you want to create may not be traditional, and that’s just fine, says Julia.

“Once you determine what you really want, then the next step is deciding what to say ‘yes’ to and what you’re going to have to say ‘no’ to.” Julia recommends trying to paint the pictures in your mind and imagine what your holiday will actually look like, what it will include. “If you want to relax, picture soaking in the tub or going for a nice long walk.”

But what if you want to relax and do away with some of the labour-intensive traditions, yet other members of your family want to celebrate and keep doing things the same way?

“You then need to gather everyone and put the question on the table,” suggests Julia.

“Ask ‘what do we as a family want to experience?’ Then say what you each want. A common theme may emerge and that might just be the connection.”

Even allowing the question to be there opens up a lot of things because so often everything’s pre-decided, Julia points out. “Most of the time we’re on automatic pilot, thinking ‘this is the way it’s going to be because this is the way it’s always been, so just suck it up and keep going’.”

In general, Julia’s “mantra” for a stress-free holiday season is “less is more”.

“People really feel like they have to do it all this time of year. The focus can so easily become more on the ‘doing’ instead of what’s really most important to us. You actually enjoy the pieces you’ve consciously chosen much more when you can let go of all the things you thought you should do.”

In addition to reducing how much you do, reduce how much you spend, suggests Julia. We all know that finding the perfect gift for everyone, doing all that wrapping, writing the cards, and then paying credit bills in January is stressful. Being bombarded with advertising everywhere we turn this time of year doesn’t help.

“All the focus on gift giving makes it hard for people to say no to consumption,” says Julia. “So much of the advertising we see is almost like lies. We have to remember that the happiness doesn’t come from the turkey, or the perfume you received. It comes from the joy of experiencing something together as a family. You can’t ‘buy’ this experience.”

Julia urges us all to go to a deeper level this holiday season. “At the core it’s usually not the things – it’s a feeling people are longing for. Once you identify that feeling you can explore how to create it in different ways.”

Julia’s other options for dialing down holiday stress include replacing the tradition of buying gifts for everyone in the family with pulling names from a hat so each person buys just one gift. And if a traditional turkey dinner, or any other big meal, is an important part of your holiday, consider turning it into a potluck event with everyone bringing a different part of it and everyone pitching in to clean up the dishes afterwards. This way the host doesn’t have to do it all. “It also leaves everyone feeling more relaxed and more connected.”

As Julia reminds us, “presence, not presents, is the most precious gift.”