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Practicing Gratitude Can Help Ease Holiday Stress

by and on November 25, 2016 5:00 AM

“What do we have on the schedule today? Tim, you have practice until 5:30, but Lucy’s piano lesson was moved to 6 for today, so I’ll pick you up and we’ll take her to her teacher’s house. Then, we can grab a sandwich at the sub shop. Sound like a plan?”

So begins a typical day in many households today. In many cases, both parents are working. A single parent may be juggling a job, responsibilities at home and trying to be a success in all areas.

How can families do it — keep the family unit strong and functioning with love and kindness as the holidays approach?  As more activities and commitments are added, impatience, frustration and anger may erupt. It has always been busier at this time of year, but why is it seemingly harder for families to enjoy the season or even enjoy each other these days?

One reason may be that there are more blended families than ever before. Often there are two sets of parents, four sets of grandparents and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of the family. All of their wishes and traditions come into play when planning any get-togethers.

Single-parent families have a difficult path to travel with the same workload and less support. In addition, many single parents face financial difficulties. This adds to the worries about how to spend the holidays and how much to spend on gifts, food and travel.

Then there is the simple fact that more sports, music and school activities are undertaken by this generation. Where once a kid may have picked a sport or a music lesson or a hobby, most children now have two, three or more social and school-related activities. That makes mealtime together almost a thing of the past. Many sports teams play on Sundays, so even going to church as a family is difficult.

We watch Christmas and holiday specials on television and, although enjoyable — especially if they include kids and popcorn — they are not realistic. The homes are "Good Housekeeping" perfect and the people appear to have lots of time for ice skating and hot chocolate to round out their perfect day.

Having presented a few of the reasons for stress, what can be said for solutions?

How do you find the time to effectively communicate with your children and pass on the goodwill and generosity of the season? One answer that comes up in conversations with older friends is that, in earlier times, most families, perhaps yours, ate together. That was a time when most — if not all of the  family — sat together, ate and reported on their day’s events.

Some young families are striving to keep that tradition alive. Crockpot dinners and casseroles help make that easier, but it still takes effort. One mother, Danette Strouse, said, “We put the phones away, turn off the TV and talk about our day, good or bad. If the activity schedules interfere, we do the best we can and make sure we get together on the weekend for meals together.

"We find that when we can’t sit down together, we miss that time for conversation and closeness.”

That brought memories to me of standing at the sink with my mother and doing the dishes. Those times were times for good conversation. Doing any type of chores with your kids can be a chance to share your thoughts about the holidays and how to do everything that you consider your most important traditions. You can let them vote on what should be kept in your schedules and what might be let go. Try taking one of them alone on an errand, and you may be surprised how much more one talks when without siblings.

Most folks look forward to the coming holidays, but for many, traveling back home or to be with family is not anticipated with joy. For various reasons, the holidays are looming like something to be avoided.

What are some ways you can deal with the stress of holiday and family get-togethers?

It is helpful if you sort out what exactly gives you a sense of dread about family gatherings or parties. Once you recognize what triggers your discomfort, some ways to deal with it may emerge.

With some people, going home or to be with people you grew up with brings back some not-so-happy memories. Your childhood may not have been that great and seeing brothers and sisters can bring bad memories. Maybe you lost a loved one recently and have not spent a holiday without that person before.

All of these things can make approaching events troubling. The solution can be as simple as moving the reunion spot, or meeting at a neutral place that has no memories attached to it. If the cost of traveling to family is prohibitive, you might invite someone new to share a meal, either at your home or in a restaurant.

Along the same line is the reminder that you do not have to have the most decorations, the fanciest cookies or the most elaborate meal to enjoy the holidays with family or friends. Concentrate on a dish or two that you’re good at and have others make the rest. Do a buffet or simply invite friends for dessert. Cut down, cut out and find what makes the holiday “special” for you.

“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” said Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in a WebMD feature. “That’s not the case,” he said. “Family relationships are complicated. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”

Dr. Andrea Brandt, in an article from Psychology Today, had some excellent tips for coping with a difficult family situation. Some of her suggestions include:

■ Remind yourself that it’s not about you.

“It’s normal to act like your 13-year-old self because that’s how you’re familiar with behaving around your family,” said Brandt. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Remind yourself that the way you interact with your family doesn’t reflect on who you are as an adult.

■ Practice mindfulness.

If someone says something upsetting, excuse yourself and go off to have a few deep breaths or a walk. It’s not the time to explain why you’re hurt. Write down how you felt for a later conversation.

■ Escape when you can — come early, leave early.

If you’re committed for a few days, break up the time by going out, seeing another friend or even going to a movie. You’ll return refreshed.

■ Plan responses in advance.

That is the advice for the inevitable questions such as: Why aren’t you engaged, married, having kids, etc.?

The sameness of the gatherings depresses some folks. People you wouldn't spend time with the rest of the year are going to be there. So are the same foods, the same jokes, the same complaining. It takes an upbeat attitude and a sense of humor sometimes to handle all that. But, no one says you have to stay all day or take anyone’s insults at your gathering.  Your immune system is under fire this time of year, the dark hours are longer and usually you are eating and drinking more.

What are some other things we can do to avoid the negative aspects of the season?

Finding some time to do something for others can be a positive experience. Teach your kids generosity by involving them in a special project, deliver a meal to someone or shop together to buy gifts for needy children.

The book “The Christmas Jar,” by Jason F. Wright, motivated one family to save their change for months and then deliver it anonymously to a needy family. The family contacted their elementary school to find a family who was in need. The experience was positive and they have continued to do it ever since.

You can also practice gratitude, which will help you to be calmer and more able to relax during the next few weeks.

Tamp down the duties and ramp up the joy this season.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Connie Cousins covers Centre County for the Gazette.
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