It seems as if the holiday season—that time-honored mixed bag of pleasure and pain—starts earlier and earlier each year, bringing with it a flood of emotional baggage many of us would prefer to leave behind. If you harbor memories of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or other holiday celebrations filled with disappointments and dread, you are not alone.
If you experience excessive anxiety and foreboding at the first sight of holiday paraphernalia in the department store, consider relaxing your expectations and shifting your mindset. These changes help make it possible to survive—and even thrive—during the stress-filled weeks from late November until early January.
Letting Go of Expectations
To release the grip of holiday stress, start by entertaining the notion that most of life’s disappointments wouldn’t be nearly as devastating if we kept our expectations more in line with reality. Think back to a time when something you were reluctant to do turned out to be not so terrible after all—that delicious moment when you thought to yourself: “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.” This revelation can bring a huge sigh of relief and remind us to hold expectations in check. Anytime we assume the worst, we set ourselves up to be miserable, even if the reality isn’t all that bad.
Similarly, it can help to be realistic about your chances for a holiday that's filled with nothing but serenity and happiness (hint: The odds are pretty low). Have you already forgotten about last year’s holiday dinner where everything wasn’t what you had hoped it would be? Have you vowed that this year things will be different? Of course, this wishful thinking assumes you won’t be exhausted from cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping, and attending to all other holiday preparations.
Your holiday may not be everything you want it to be. By choosing not to set your expectations unrealistically low or high, but instead allowing events to unfold however they do, you can help to eliminate the pain of disappointment from your holiday season. Bonus points if you can cultivate a sense of humor and learn to laugh off all the missteps.
Shifting Your Mindset
Now that you’ve let go of expectations, it’s time to look at this holiday season through a different lens: pure, unadulterated gratitude. While it might take some effort to cultivate gratitude when stressors abound, it’s well worth it: Studies have shown that gratitude can reduce stress and anxiety, improve intimate relationships, and even promote physical health. Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood. Hill PL, Allemand M, Roberts BW. Personality and individual differences, 2013, undefined.;54(1):0191-8869.
Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2003, May.;84(2):0022-3514.
Counting blessings in early adolescents: an experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Froh JJ, Sefick WJ, Emmons RA. Journal of school psychology, 2007, May.;46(2):1873-3506.
To have and to hold: gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Gordon AM, Impett EA, Kogan A. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2012, May.;103(2):1939-1315. A gratitude-filled approach to life has the potential to enhance your general well-being both this holiday season and all year long.
So what are some things to be grateful for? Well, for starters, how about any, or all, of the following:
- For family, even if certain relatives drive you absolutely wild with the desire to escape to another planet.
- For the awareness that you are not responsible for the bad behavior of others, even if they are related to you by blood.
- For those friends who love and support you no matter what—“through thick and thin,” as the old adage says.
- For the abundance of food set before you—knowing that people are starving in every corner of the world, while your plate is often overflowing.
- For the generosity of others who lead by example, whether by giving their time, money, or talent to lend a helping hand.
- For good health—possibly the most cherished gift of all; the one that can’t be bought, wrapped, or returned.
- For the wisdom of parents and grandparents, both present and deceased. Be grateful that even if you believe their mistakes wounded you in ways great or small, their intentions were, in most instances, well meaning, and who you are today is a result of their guidance and those struggles.
- For the knowledge that complete turkey dinners are available for purchase at the supermarket should yours suddenly go up in smoke.
- For the realization that something will inevitably go wrong, even under the best of circumstances, and that it is OK if it does. Look at the big picture and try to laugh it off.
- And lastly, be grateful that this day, dinner, or disaster will soon pass, and you can get back to your real life in January, the most boring, uneventful month of the year.
Each time you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, gently guide your focus back to one (or all) of the things for which you feel grateful. If it helps, write down your gratitudes on paper and display them prominently as a visual reminder of how you want to feel this holiday season. The more you practice this simple habit, the more you will start to notice a shift in your thinking, from fearful anxiety to the calm of the present moment. Wishing you a holiday season filled with gratitude, no matter what.
Suzanne Handler, M.Ed, is an author and the former director of mental health education services for Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network in Centennial, CO, where she was responsible for creating mental health curricula for classroom teachers, school counselors, parents, and the general public. She is the author of The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family. The views expressed herein are hers. To learn more about Handler, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
Originally published November 2013. Updated November 2015.