Stress less

Advice for the holidays

Written by Amy Palser

Family, food, gifts, parties, traditions: They're what make the holidays great, right? For some people, not so much. The same elements that make a delightful season for some might trigger anxiety for others. Whether it's a strained relationship or the feeling of being steamrolled by someone else's plans, the holidays can be downright stressful. Two Wichita therapists say you can get through the season with your happiness and sanity intact, but it starts with the B-word: boundaries. Here, they address common issues that can cause more misery than merriment at family gatherings:

Help! My family does the same things every holiday. I'm tired of the same people, the same food and the same dumb jokes!

Michele Meinhardt, a therapist and assistant director of coaching at HopeNet in Wichita, says the key is remembering that you have a choice; you are not a helpless victim.

"Ask yourself, 'How would I like it to be different?' Then take responsibility for acting in a different way," Meinhardt says. "Bring a dish that you enjoy. Invite the family to play a new game. Host the gathering yourself and invite whoever you like. If your family isn't responsive to this, ask yourself if you're willing to continue attending."

Learning to say "no" and setting boundaries is crucial, says Vickie Pennick, licensed family and marriage therapist at Pennick Family Therapy in Wichita. If you've done the same things for years and decide to make changes, you're going to get some pushback, she says.

"Change makes you uncomfortable, so you have to learn to be O.K. with being uncomfortable and someone being upset with you," Pennick says. "That takes practice, but in the long run you're going to be a lot happier and enjoy the holidays"p>

Help! I feel obligated to stay with my grandma/parents/aunt every year for the holidays, even though I don't want to.

Meinhardt recommends asking yourself some questions: Where is this obligation coming from? Are your relatives openly stating that you are expected to stay with them? Or are you assuming?

"Get the discussion out in the open if it's not already," she says. "You may be pleasantly surprised. Consider why you are reluctant to stay with them and more importantly, why you are so frightened of saying no."

If you're used to feeling emotionally obligated, Pennick says, it's time to start owning your decisions. Do things because you want to do them, not because you feel you don't have a choice.

"You have to go ahead and set boundaries. It's not selfish to do that," Pennick says.

Help! I'm not the same person I used to be, but my family doesn't acknowledge it. I don't want to fall back into old habits.

Whether the "old habits"are an addiction or just reverting to an unhealthy family dynamic, establishing a new normal can take time, Pennick says.

"You're not the same person you were when you were five, but you have allowed the behavior to continue with Mom or Dad because they're Mom or Dad," she says. "You have the right to change."

We teach people how to treat us, Pennick says, so you may have to work for while at establishing the new normal. There may be pushback from your family, but continue to set boundaries and stay true to the person you have become.

If the issue is a past addiction, Meinhardt says, make sure you have a support network and relapse prevention plan in place. Set limits on the situations to which you expose yourself. For example, you can set a firm limit that you won't be in the same room as alcoholic beverages. Plan ahead, she says, and give yourself the protection you need.

"Your family may not be willing to help you, but this is your recovery, not theirs," she says.

Help! My family doesn't like the person I'm bringing for the holidays.

"That happens a lot because you marry somebody or meet someone who's different and your family has different ways they do things," Pennick says. "That happens with age, religious beliefs, race all kinds of things enter into that"

Pennick's advice is to address the situation with your family before the big event takes place.

"If you put it ahead of time and you say, Look, I'm going to bring Bob; is this going to be O.K. with you? If not, let me know, they have a choice whether to have Bob come with you, or have you not come at all," she says.

And try not to foster negative expectations. If you're already on the defensive about how your family might act toward your guest, Pennick says, you might inaccurately read into your family's actions and conversations. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and give them time to change their perceptions.

Help! We just had a death in the family, and this is the first holiday without that important person.

The temptation in this situation is to soldier on like nothing is wrong, Meinhardt said.

"But something is wrong. Someone is gone. Pretending like that's not true will only deepen the pain," she said. "Acknowledging the deceased family member is difficult, but necessary for healing."

Perhaps each family member could share a favorite holiday memory of the deceased, she said, or maybe the family could begin a new tradition in his or her honor, like making Christmas cookies using that person's cookie cutters.

Pennick said sometimes family members can get carried away trying to make everything perfect for those who are grieving.

"They'll say, We're going to make it really special this year because Mom's grieving, or Don't mention Dad because it will upset Mom," Pennick said.

Instead, you can ask the family members closest to the deceased person what they are comfortable with, or what would be nice for them at the holiday gathering.

"You could say, Mom, who do you think should put the star on the tree since that was something Dad always did?" Pennick suggests.

Meinhardt recommends trying to be open with the family about their grief and if you do, others may join in, turning a time of avoidance of pain into a time of healing.

"The burden of grief is easier carried together than alone," she said.

Help! Trying to make the holidays enjoyable for my family always stresses me out!

This holiday season, try something new: Just say no! Pennick says overdoing it is a common cause of stress at the holidays, whether it's spending too much, eating too much, doing too much or trying to make things perfect for everyone else.

"Lower your expectations for yourself," she says. "If you need help, find help. Hire somebody to help if you've got a big event coming up. Ask people to bring things so it's not all on you. Trying to be the perfect host, the perfect mom it's going to backfire and you're not going to enjoy the holidays."

Don't skip self-care during the holiday season; try not to overdrink, overeat, overspend and overcommit. And keep your sense of humor.

"Be realistic and don't take things too seriously," Pennick says. "Enjoy the holidays instead of making it an ordeal."

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