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How to survive - and thrive! - during the holidays

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?

November and December are interesting months – depending on your perspective and circumstances, they can be joyous times, filled with fun, family and celebration, or they can be depressing times of stress, burnout and depression.

Going home again – being a child in your family, sleeping in your old bed, being thrust into your childhood roles and rules – doesn’t always feel good. And often, no matter how much you’ve tried to be healthier, it’s so easy to get sucked into old unhealthy family patterns at this time of year.

It’s hard to have a holly jolly Christmas sometimes.

Ornaments on a red background

The key to making it through mostly unscathed is to prepare, to think through what kinds of situations you might have to face, how you will feel about them and what you can do to care for yourself in the best way. Here are a few ways to turn surviving during the holidays into thriving!

  • Remember basic techniques to calm anxiety. I’ve talked about many of these in the past in this column, but these could include mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation. Mindful breathing can be any observed breathing technique – one we like at Sanctuary Christian Counseling is called “box breathing,” and is done like this:

o Sit upright in a comfortable chair in a calm and quiet environment. Keep your feet flat on the floor

and try to relax your body.

o Consciously exhale all the air in your lungs, slowly through your mouth as you count to four.

o Consciously inhale through your nose, as you count to four. Fill your lungs as completely as you


o Hold your breath for a count of four.

o Exhale again in the same way for a count of four.

o Hold your breath again for a count of four.

o Breath in again for a count of four.

o Repeat.

It’s been found that this technique (and others like it, search “mindful breathing” for other ideas; you can

also search “progressive muscle relaxation”) can calm and regulate your autonomic nervous system, lower

your heart rate and blood pressure and make you feel calmer.

  • Remember basic self-care tips – eat well and healthily (as much as possible) and get as much sleep as you can. Get some exercise, even if it’s just a walk. Many years ago, when visiting a stressful family member I learned the joy of just getting out of the house and away from the drama – it’s quite a wonderful and relaxing feeling to give yourself short breaks from family sometimes. Journaling can also give you a wonderful outlet for feelings you – sometimes prudently – don’t wish to share out loud.

  • Think about others. If you find yourself dreading the holidays, do something for someone else. There are numerous volunteer opportunities at this time of year (and at all times of the year, really) and doing something of value to others will make you feel good and give new meaning to the holiday season.

  • Decide ahead of time what is really important and do that. Don’t do things that do not give you joy just because you always have. Consider your time, your resources, and your interest before saying yes, even if it’s a “tradition.” Some traditions should be changed, and new ones can be fun. Prioritize your time and your to-do list so that you don’t become overwhelmed, which isn’t fun for anyone.

  • Plan for likely disaster. Not the big, societal disasters, but the little ones – the turkey burns. The pie falls on the floor. Your child hates their holiday gift. The inlaws are two hours late. Your uncle has a bit too much holiday cheer and gets belligerent. The “normal” disasters of everyday life can become less dramatic when you refuse to be distracted. Know something will likely go wrong, and sometimes, as my friend Jim says, “Big problems cause great stories.” Go with it, do the best you can, and know nothing short of a life-threatening disaster has to ruin the holiday. Sometimes a little planning ahead of time can pinpoint areas that could go awry, and you can have a backup plan. Sometimes you can’t and you have to just be resilient, take a step back and remember the perspective that this, too, will pass.

  • Laugh and enjoy yourself as much as you can. Sometimes the best thing you can do is change your own attitude to try to find the best in every situation. It’s a hard mind-tweak, but if you work at it, you can do it.

  • Be grateful. No matter how stressful or difficult you experience your holidays to be, they could always be worse. I have spent holidays in glory in my home surrounded by loved ones, and in the hospital ICU waiting room not knowing if my loved one would live. There’s a vast difference between the two, but even in the ICU, there were families facing even worse scenarios. If you can find something for which to be grateful, you will be just a little bit less stressed.

  • Plan short me-breaks and treats for yourself so that it’s not all go-go-go and do-do-do. Maybe find a bubble bath scent you love, or just enjoy sitting under the Christmas tree and looking at the lights. Whatever brings you a spark of joy is it. For many years, one of my personal Christmas traditions has been to lay with my head under the tree and look up into the lighted branches. For me, this is a peaceful place and time I can focus on the real meaning of the season as well as the beauty around me.

Life can be stressful, and the holidays can be more so. Don’t feel guilty for taking care of you! Try some of these tips to make your holiday less stressful and more joyful this year. If you are in Pennsylvania and need some help coping with the holidays – or any days – reach out to us:

Sanctuary Christian Counseling

9974 Molly Pitcher Highway, Suite 4

Shippensburg, PA 17257



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