How to have a peaceful holiday
Photo: Getty Images

The holidays are supposed to joyful -- but for many, the time is anything but. Political divisions, family tensions, the pressure to spend can be overwhelming. We talked to Dr. Igor Galynker, associate chairman for research in the department of psychiatry, and founder-director of the Richard and Cynthia Zirinsky Center for Bipolar at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, for some advice and coping strategies.

How to have a peaceful holiday 


Peaceful Holiday

What is the key to having a peaceful holiday? Photo: Getty Images

Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy. Why are the holidays more stressful for some than others?

While this season is meant to bring feelings of love and cheer, it’s also the herald of holiday stress for many. Many of us feel the pressure to live up to the expectation of feeling joyful and may be disappointed when life intervenes. The traditional image of the holidays is unrealistic and picture perfect. Social media provides us with an unending stream of retouched images of perfection we are forced to compare ourselves to. It takes quite a bit of common sense and often some effort to avoid the trap of great expectations and to enjoy holidays for what they are - an opportunity to take some time off, to catch up with friends and relatives, and to reacquaint ourselves with their endearing or annoying quirks. The problem with the holiday season is that we often experience too much of a good thing. Too much stress has a negative impact on our health, both mental and physical. Too many activities, even if they are fun, can culminate in too much holiday stress and leave us feeling frazzled, rather than fulfilled.

What can you do to prepare yourself?

Even in the midst of all the holiday hubbub, you can take control of your anxiety with some practical strategies to manage the stress of this season. The most helpful thing overall would be to try to lower your expectations: of yourself, of your friends and relatives, and of the expected “level” of joy. Think back to previous years and try to pinpoint how much togetherness you and your family can take before feeling negative stress. Don’t expect your gifts or your holiday dinner to be drastically different. Acceptance of yourself is one of the keys to happiness… and holiday joy. Finally, set your priorities. Before you get overwhelmed by too many activities, it’s important to decide what traditions offer the most positive impact and won’t leave you exhausted by January.

How do you handle it if a friend or relative wants to talk politics?

It depends on whether you have the same political views. Right now the country and the world are very polarized politically and culturally. Know thy terrain, i.e. the views of your dinner guests and fellow New Year revelers. Share, rejoice, and commiserate with the like-minded relatives and friends. Steer away from the political discussions with those who do not share your views. Try to recognize provocations and not be baited! Some families adopt the rule of not discussing politics during holiday gatherings.

How can you stay calm if things get heated?

It is best to change the subject to something innocuous, such as children, sports, shopping, food, drinks. If that does not work, you can try to excuse yourself, get another helping of steamed vegetables and start talking to somebody else. If there is nobody to talk to – any distraction helps: take a walk, watch a football game, call a friend.

What sort of self-care can help?

The most common suggestions include: Don’t forget your exercise routine, take time for yourself, be mindful of drugs and alcohol, be mindful of too much food and of evil chocolate cakes, protect yourself during difficult interactions with the family, practice forgiveness, and don’t expect a perfect holiday. Ultimately, finding joy in the holidays boils down to mindfully cherishing time spent with family and friends, only committing to things that are most important to you and managing self-imposed expectations.

Families can be overwhelming at the holidays -- but what if you have the opposite problem and they leave you feeling lonely?

Feeling stressed out by the people you love can feel isolating, but if you’re one of the people for whom this is the case, you’re far from alone. Most people may feel some degree of stress surrounding their families. So why do we get stressed about seeing family, and around the holidays in particular? Expectations are one of the biggest reasons. The best thing you can do is to manage your expectations, to set realistic ones so that you don’t get frustrated or angry around the holidays.

Try to plan out your holidays in advance. Reach out to people who may be available and who you have not seen in a while. Visit your grandmother! Attend crowded events where you could be alone rather than lonely: museums, concerts, lectures, parks. Volunteer!

The temptation to escape through overindulging is great. How can you keep that in check?

An overabundance of parties and gift-giving occasions lead many people to eat, drink and be merry in excess. The temptation to overindulge in spending, rich desserts, and alcohol can cause many people to have lasting stress of dealing with consequences that can linger after the season is over.

There is a number of ways to combat this. Try not to go to a party hungry, because you are likely to eat a lot of junk food. Focus on soups, salads vegetables, and fruit rather than on potatoes, pasta, gravy, cakes and pastries. Get your sleep and drink a lot of water. Stay away from hard liquor: 1 oz of vodka = 70 calories!

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