Mental Health

The festive holidays can be hellish. Here's how to handle the stress

It’s been a rough year for many. Showing a little kindness — especially to yourself — will go a long way, says Atlehang Ramathesele

20 December 2020 - 00:00 By Atlehang Ramathesele
One of the bigger bugbears for many during the festive season is having to spend time with people who they would otherwise avoid like tactless family members.
One of the bigger bugbears for many during the festive season is having to spend time with people who they would otherwise avoid like tactless family members.
Image: 123RF/Iakov Filimonov

Two years ago, I was doing my Christmas shopping in a crowded mall on the 24th of December (I know, I know) and was standing in a queue with a visibly stressed woman. She had finally rounded up her two small children after chasing them through the store wielding armfuls of gift-wrapping paper.

I overheard her muttering, “Man! I hate the holidays!” and I remember giving her a supportive smile but not being able to fully commiserate.

You see, I love the holiday season — particularly in a country as vibrant and diverse as ours. I savour the braai meat in the balmy weather, belt out Christmas carols, marvel at the poinsettias brightening up homes, and truly appreciate the precious time with loved ones.

But the reality is, it's not the same for others. As Boney M and Michael Bublé come back into heavy rotation, so does stress.

Feeling overwhelmed and anxious during the festive season is fairly common for many reasons. It can be anything from pushing a trolley full of generic gifts you felt obliged to buy to the general strain of planning or hosting events to the financial burden and everything in between.

It also signals the start of “New Year, New Me” pressure as people start to evaluate the year and berate themselves for not achieving their goals.

But perhaps one of the bigger bugbears for many during the festive season is having to spend time with people whom they would otherwise avoid. These can often be tactless family members who dole out unsolicited parenting advice, comment on your weight and chastise you for not being married with kids.

Sometimes it is blatant toxicity or a flurry of passive aggression served with a hearty side of tension. I am squirming with discomfort just thinking about it. Throw in some differing political views and year-end fatigue and you've got a recipe for a rather hostile dining table. And in some cases, once the bubbly flows, so do the insults. And you're just about ready to roast everyone at the table, instead of the turkey.

To ensure that everyone is full of mince pies and not resentment, it's worth noting that the stakes are a little higher this year because 2020 has been particularly dramatic for many — and a little kindness and communication would go a long way. Sometimes it's helpful to remember the old adage, “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all” and just enjoy your dinner.

Counselling psychologist Lungako Mweli suggests that partly what exacerbates holiday stress is anticipating things going wrong and pre-empting negative emotions. It's better to focus on what you can control. She believes learning to communicate well is one of the best steps, especially when someone says something that you deem to be insensitive.

“Sometimes people can't see the impact of their comments until you address it with them. You can express yourself respectfully but still convey how you'd prefer to be spoken to, and create a boundary,” she says.

To protect your peace, try to respond instead of react when a curveball arises, like someone bringing extra guests you didn't cater for or not offering to help with anything.

“Find outlets for frustration. Take a brief walk or get some fresh air, so that you can deal with things calmly. Sometimes when you react immediately, your delivery and your tone can be misconstrued,” says Mweli.

To protect your peace, try to respond instead of react when a curveball arises, like someone bringing extra guests you didn't cater for

Sometimes we can also get triggered when someone vocalises something you've already been giving yourself a hard time about. In this case, Mweli suggests journaling. “It can offer perspective on issues and help you deal with things realistically. You'd be surprised how much writing things down helps. By getting your feelings out, you're giving yourself room to breathe.”

As one reflects on the year, she emphasises how important it is to practise gratitude: “Take note to look at the positives. It's human nature to focus on what we haven't done when this really is the time for self-compassion. Be realistic about your resolutions, realise that there isn't anything wrong with adjusting your goals and be mindful of how you talk to yourself. You're allowed to commit and you are allowed to be flexible,” she explains.

No matter your beliefs, after this ever-evolving year riddled with uncertainty, one can absorb this holiday period with more meaning. It's already an accomplishment to have seen this year out. Be kind to yourself and to each other. "'Tis the season to be jolly” after all.