Ahhh, the yin and yang of the holidays.
More fun. More food and drink. More face time with your favorite friends and family members. Priceless.
More work. More weight and hangovers. More face time with your boorish friends and family members. Costly.
How can you find more meaning than stress this time of year?
It’s all in the approach, according to three local experts who help others deal with the aftermath of a holiday season badly played – a fitness instructor, a doctor and a hospital chaplain.
“Being realistic, planning ahead and balancing demands can help you to avoid distress and enjoy a much better holiday experience,” said MaryAnne Cappellino, wellness director for Buffalo Athletic Club.
“One of the most important strategies is to be honest with yourself, to really be able to say no, and focus on what’s most important,” said Dr. Judith Feld, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health for Independent Health.
“The holidays should be about being present, and really being present – not playing with your phone – but really listening,” said Barbara Britting, a Catholic chaplain at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. “Remembering that there’s so much beauty and joy in this time of year, finding pleasure and recognizing that people take a lot of time to do things out of love.”
All three women helped lay out a holiday road to sanity:
1. Have a plan: Feld recommended a form of journaling for the holidays similar to that used for fitness and weight loss. In this case, it should have columns for gifts to buy, a budget to live by, holiday social prospects, an activities log, an exercise plan and – prominently – what you’re going to do every day to take care of your own well-being.
“Always put some time in for doing pretty much nothing,” she said, “either listening to music or watching one TV show, not 12 TV shows. I’d like to see a solid hour in the day” for down time.
A plan is designed to ward off overwhelming yourself, whether it be day-to-day or across the season, Cappellino said. Make sure you follow it, Feld added. “If you’re going to cook a Christmas meal but not going to cook Christmas Eve,” she said, “then stick to that.”
2. Make a budget: More than three-quarters of people feel financial stress during the holidays, Feld said, so it’s important to make a written budget you can follow – with an eye toward sound economic and mental health in the new year.
When it comes to extended family and friend gift exchanges, “think about choosing to share the fun by picking a single name, so that everyone has to buy just one wonderful gift,” Cappellino said. Feld recalled hearing about a mom on a tight budget telling her young children, “Santa Claus has put me on a budget.” The doctor also urged talking to children about what makes a good present. “There is no greater gift,” she said, “than sharing time.”
3. Get good shut-eye: “If I were to highlight one piece, No. 1, I would tell people to sleep,” Feld said. “We certainly tend not to get enough during the regular year and it gets worse during the holidays.” Adults need seven to eight hours of quality sleep, and children eight to 10; and everyone should be in bed by midnight.
The lack of proper sleep zaps the ability to rationalize and “be on your game”; it changes moods, making you more irritable, and can worsen depression; and it makes it harder to react well to stress, causing you to eat more and exercise less, Feld said. “Often what we call a lack of willpower,” she said, “is a lack of sleep.”
4. Reframe the wait: What do you remember most about your trip to Disney World – the long lines or the good times? How you answer that says a lot about how well you prepare yourself for holiday shopping and traffic. “I don’t think we take time to think things through,” Britting said. “There’s more depth to life. It can become more beautiful, sacred, holy.”
Even at the mall? Yes, said Feld. “Understand that’s what you’re facing, and make it enjoyable.” She suggested shopping with a friend who can drop you off, find a parking space and grab you both coffee while you wait in line together. And here’s a shameless plug: If you’re going to be alone in line, bring a newspaper to read.
5. Family matters: Holiday time is often family time, like it or not, and things can be complicated. Those who have lost loved ones since last holiday season can be particularly vulnerable, as can those dealing with other family tragedies or differences. “If you are missing a loved one who passed, find ways to honor that person,” Cappellino said. “Get family together to celebrate their life; make a donation in their memory to make someone else’s holiday season better.”
In cases where reopening family wounds is a concern, “sometimes we have to set boundaries,” Britting said, but we also need to be mindful of the season. “Are we able to let go of things temporarily? Are my actions based in some way out of love,” and forgiveness?
The holidays are not the time to confront loved ones about differences and try to resolve them, Feld said. Put those aside for the new year. For now, she said, “understand where the problems are, and accept them.” Meanwhile, she said, “If you need to limit time with people, that’s fine, but avoiding the anger is key.”
6. Relax: The holidays generally aren’t the best time to throw meditation classes atop already busy schedules, but simple relaxation can go a long way in the coming weeks, Britting said. “Put your feet solidly on the ground or sit comfortably. Draw in a breath comfortably, then gently release it. Say simple words important to you, like “I’m drawing in peace, I’m releasing peace.”
Spend some time listening to your favorite Christmas music or your favorite musical artist, even if it means making a special CD or playlist of your most comforting songs.
“It’s all about awareness,” Britting said.
7. Spend some time on the move: Skiing, skating, walking and dancing are fun this time of year, Cappellino said. “Take the family on a walk to see holiday decorations rather than just drive by. Sing a few carols and make it a memorable occasion. Spend energy by exercising to counteract the extra calories from holiday foods.”
Keeping an exercise routine during the holidays can buffer stress and blunt some of the sluggishness that comes with unhealthy eating this time of year, the fitness expert said. But be realistic, Feld said. Don’t abandon your exercise routine completely if you miss a class or two; scale things back a bit. Same goes for food. Don’t let one bad eating bout blow your weight goals for the season. “Your attitude has a lot to do with managing diet and weight,” Cappellino said. “It’s important to get back on track by making some more healthy choices the next day.”
8. Laugh: “That’s what Santa Claus does, and it’s a very healthy thing,” Britting said.
9. Give: “Whoever you are and whatever you believe in, giving to others in some way is one of the greatest spiritual acts that people can do,” Cappellino said, “and this time of year is a perfect time to do that. It really is what the Christmas season represents.”