One way to understand why the holidays are so stressful is to take an ACT-based approach to rethinking holiday stress. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a values-based approach to dealing with mental distress, is the perfect framework for understanding holiday stress because stress often occurs when two or more strongly held values conflict with each other. Nowhere is this more evident than during the holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. The holidays seem to bring out the best and worst in others and ourselves because they are fraught with values conflicts.
People who celebrate the holidays with family and friends generally do so because they value these relationships and want to spend time with loved ones. One way to characterize this is to look at relationships with family and friends as core values. Other values associated with the holidays are related to things such as sharing meals and exchanging gifts. These values could be characterized as secondary or satellite values. They are important, but less important than actually spending time with loved ones.
The media portrays the holiday season as a blissful time when families and friends gather around a large table in a spacious dining room in an opulent colonial home with a roaring fireplace. On the table sits a massive roast turkey and everyone is all dressed up and smiling as the man of the house (dad or grandpa) carves the turkey with precision. Afterwards everyone gathers around the perfectly decorated Christmas tree and exchanges gifts and pleasantries.
Nice image unless of course you are a vegetarian, live in an apartment with dining space for 6 at best, had an abusive father or grandfather, are afraid of roaring fires, don’t like to get dressed up and would prefer to go to a local restaurant for a holiday dinner that someone else prepares. Because of conflicts like this, coming together with family and friends at the holidays conjures up all sorts of troubling thoughts and painful emotions related to gifting, food, personal appearance, budgets, travel, living arrangements, family dynamics, and a host of other issues
Three key elements of taking an ACT-based approach to rethinking holiday stress are defining your values, practicing acceptance, and being willing to take action despite your troubling thoughts and painful emotions. By clarifying your holiday values you can use this information to develop values-based goals for the season. This will serve as a roadmap for navigating the season without being overly stressed. Practicing acceptance involves understanding that spending time with family and friends over the holidays will involve values conflicts that will trigger troubling thoughts and painful emotions. Practicing willingness means that you are willing and able to co-exist with your painful emotions and troubling thoughts and still take action (spend time with family and friends) that is consistent with your core values. Here are five tips to help you take ACT-based approach to rethinking your holiday stress.
1. Clarify what you value about the holidays before making any plans. To do this, finish the following sentence stem with as many endings as possible: “The things I value about the holidays are… ” When you are done, rank your holiday values from most to least important.
2. Set reasonable goals for your top three your values. It is better to break goals down into smaller objectives that answer the question; “Who will do how much of what by when?” This will make it easier to meet your values-based holiday goals. For example: Top (core) value: “Family.” Goal: “Visiting my family over the holidays.” Objective: ” I will visit my mom and dad, aunt Millie and her family and my uncle Bob between Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend after New Year’s Day.
3. Accept the pain and suffering that accompanies the joy associated with the holidays. Seeing your family will more than likely dredge up some old painful thoughts, feelings and mental images. ACT has found that the worst thing you can do when these painful thoughts and feelings arise is try to control, avoid, or eliminate them. This only makes them worse. The best way to deal with them is to accept them. Tell yourself: ” I am willing to co-exist with these painful thoughts and feelings in the service of spending time with my family (core value).”
4. Work in some daily physical activity or exercise. The holiday stress response mobilizes energy and creates muscle tension. If you don’t dissipate this through physical activity it has nowhere to go and will cause irritability, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle pain.
5. Take a few good breaths several times a day. Every day take a few moments to calm yourself by becoming more mindful of the present moment through diaphragmatic breathing. Sit comfortably on a chair with a straight back and close your eyes. Put your hands on your belly and slowly exhale completely through your nose. As you inhale slowly through your nose notice the feeling of the air travel in through your nose, down your windpipe, and all the way down to the bottom portion of your lungs closest to where your hands are resting. As you slowly fill your lungs from the bottom up feel your belly rise and push on your hands. When your lungs are completely full pause for a moment and notice how this feels. Slowly empty your lungs and notice the feelings in your chest as the air exits your body. Continue to notice the sensations in your nose, windpipe, lungs and belly as you breathe in and out for a few breaths. Repeat this a few times a day as often as you can during the holidays.