Holiday stress: U-M psychologist says manage expectations

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The holidays can be a joyous time, but they can also be a stressful or lonely time. University of Michigan psychology professor Stephanie Preston shares some strategies that may help in this short video. 


“COVID fatigue” is making it mentally difficult for some people to believe “tis the season to be jolly.” They are feeling less festive due to the additional stress from their unemployment, losing loved ones, or simply staying home to protect family and friends from contracting the virus.

Stephanie D. PrestonUniversity of Michigan psychology professor, and Depression Center member, Stephanie Preston said all isn’t grim if people focus on what makes the holidays special: It’s a season for giving and giving thanks, not for unnecessary pressure to fit a certain household narrative.

What is it about the holidays, which are supposed to be a joyous time, that gets people stressed out?

There are so many wonderful aspects of the holidays, but some of these very benefits also bring about problems. People spend more time at home, with their families, celebrating and sharing food, love and gifts. For some people, this is the best part of the year. But many people have difficult relationships with their relatives, especially in a period in America that is marked by a sharp political divide and debates over how to address COVID-19. Many cannot afford the items that Americans have grown to assume are essential for a holiday, like a huge spread of food or piles of presents—a problem that is only exacerbated by record joblessness that makes buying these items very difficult.

Others have lost friends and family members that they were close to or are not allowed to see during the pandemic—making them miss their loved ones even more. Even relatively privileged people—with jobs and homes and a little extra for food and gifts—have to juggle an increasing number of holiday tasks on top of their usual work and caregiving, like taking extra trips to the store, wrapping gifts, baking piles of cookies, mailing out holiday cards, organizing parties for school or work, and even placing elves on shelves in new and creative dioramas every evening. These things were designed to contribute to a festive holiday, but they can be exhausting and push us over the limit. They also remove the structure that people rely upon in normal periods for good budgeting and staying healthy and “sane.” This added work can be hard to manage for even the best of us.

What are the signs of stress and what coping strategies should be done?

When your fuse feels short, when you are impatient with those around you and find yourself saying things like “I cannot do this,” it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. Consider which of the tasks you are trying to manage are essential. Open a line of dialogue with your spouse, kids or co-workers about the demands, how you are coping with them, and how changes could be made to prioritize enjoying the holiday over creating one that seems perfect but will make you miserable.

Don’t forget to do something for your own body and soul like exercise, get outdoors to smell the fresh air, and get some rest. Sleep is essential for feeling good. Maybe use any extra time off of work to catch up on sleep rather than adding holiday tasks to the list. I think people are particularly understanding during this difficult time, knowing that people are stretched to their limit, so there’s less concern that you will disappoint someone if you don’t manage it all.

How can parents help their children cope during these times, especially when traditions may have meant them seeing grandparents or other family members?

The holidays will likely look different for many families this year. One thing to remember is that kids are resilient, and are probably not as attached to some of the trappings of the season as we imagine. For example, most kids probably don’t care if you have fancy matching decorations on a big, perfect tree; or if you buy a smaller, more affordable cut of meat for the center of the table; or if there are fewer gifts or relatives afoot. Reassure kids and grandparents that people can gather in a few months—waiting just a bit more is better than the potentially devastating outcome of putting everyone into danger just to replicate a tradition.

Some parents and kids do expect high-status items that cannot be purchased on a tight budget, like a new iPhone, smartwatch or video game console. They may see others getting these things, which isn’t in the cards this year. It’s a good time to rebalance expectations and openly discuss what you most value and can still enjoy this holiday. Remember that happiness does not come from “keeping up with the Joneses.” In fact, research shows that people are happier when they give to others, especially those closest to them. Giving is inexpensive: you can send a card, help a neighbor, bake something or just give a kind word of thanks. People are happier and more generous when they list what they are grateful for each day—in a journal or around the dinner table—shifting the focus onto what you do have and appreciate, over what you lack.

Of course, not everyone has a family or they may not be close with loved ones. What should they do to not feel lonely?

Loneliness is a real problem. Research shows that loneliness causes a spate of negative health consequences, beyond feeling isolated and alone. This is even more problematic this year, for those who have lost family, cannot travel to family because of COVID-19, or are not enmeshed in a social network that includes them in festivities. Additionally, not everyone is religious or celebrates typical American holidays, which can feel isolating.

Even though a lot of people feel “zoomed out,” it is still restorative to talk on a phone or computer with those that you care about. Expand the list of people you might call beyond close family or romantic partners. You could set up a call with an old friend, a hobby group, or a friendly co-worker. Some modicum of socialization every day, even just exchanging a card or a nice email, can brighten someone’s day. People are even happier when we reach out to them to express our gratitude than we predict, so if you extend a few olive branches yourself, you could make someone else’s day, strengthen a relationship, and also feel better in return.

Some people are getting “pandemic pets” to stave off loneliness. Pets are known to be good for the soul and body. But remember that this is a commitment for the pet’s life, so consider how this will fit into your schedule if you have to return to work or resume normal life.

Overall, we have to remember that, at its core, this is a season for giving and for giving thanks. The more we focus on that, the less we worry about what we cannot buy or who we cannot see, and the more generous we will feel toward others, which makes everyone happier.