The holidays are ideally a time of joy and togetherness, a tightening of bonds among families and friends amid a cloud of general good will. But for many, the reality can be dramatically different, says Pacific Medical Centers’ Erin Malesh Hayden, LMHC.

“The holiday season tends to be the darkest and coldest time of the year, so those suffering from seasonal depression find themselves even more lonely and isolated,” says Malesh Hayden, a Behavioral Medicine Specialist at PacMed’s Lakewood and Federal Way clinics. “There are such intense cultural expectations around holidays that it can be really stressful if you don’t feel like you’re living up to them.”

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Pacific Medical Centers’ Erin Malesh Hayden helps patients minimize or forestall the stress that so often accompanies the holiday season. Photo courtesy: Pacific Medical Center.

Compounding the issue, for some families the season is more about who’s missing than who is present; those who have lost loved ones or military families with members overseas may find the holidays challenging, as can those whose budgets are too tight to allow for visits to far-off relatives. “It might be the first Christmas since someone died,” says Malesh Hayden. “It can be a time when people are really missing their loved ones.”

Sometimes just the stress of the holiday season can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips on how to minimize stress for ourselves and the people in our lives.

  1. Schedule down time. “Look at your calendar in advance,” she says. “If you see that you have two parties in one week, schedule a night in or arrange for a massage. Make relaxing as much of a priority as socializing.” This can go as far as scheduling a 30 minute nap, she says.
  1. Budget, budget, budget.  “A big part of the stress can be financial,” says Malesh Hayden. “Nobody likes to get a big bill in February. It’s easier to budget beforehand. Manage your kids’ expectations around what the holidays mean and what they can and can’t expect.” If possible, she encourages people to plan throughout the year.
  1. Stick to daily routines. “If you find yourself overwhelmed, the inclination can sometimes be that ‘I need to do even more,’” says Malesh Hayden. “It’s better to do less. If you exercise at a regular time, stick to that. Have regular meals, drink water, and get regular sleep. It will give you a better baseline.”
  1. Take breaks. “Some people are not as social and being around a lot of people can be draining,” she explains. “It’s okay to say, ‘After two hours of being with people I need five minutes in a room by myself.’ Taking the dog for a walk is a great way to get out of the house and be alone. Do something you enjoy.”
  1. Order take-out or go out to eat. “Cooking is a definite source of stress,” says Malesh Hayden. “There’s nothing wrong with ordering take-out. Going to a public place can reduce the odds of people arguing and it also reduces the stress of expectations. People can sit around the table and have fun with their family.”
  1. Remember to laugh. “There’s great evidence that a big laugh immediately reduces stress,” she says. “Music can be good, too. Anything that offers a distraction from all of the tasks at hand is helpful. Often, people who are really stressed are the ones who always do a lot. If one person is always the photographer, offer to take photos for a while. It gives them permission to let go.”
  1. Most importantly, set priorities. “Sit down with yourself before the holidays and write down the most important things you want to make sure you do,” she says. “What are your top three? Not everything is going to get done. Maybe we don’t have to go to the tree farm this year. What new traditions do you want to create this year?”

Finally, be present in the moment. “The best thing you can do is turn off your electronics,” she maintains. “Disconnect your work email from your phone. It’s about quality time over quantity time.”

For more information about Pacific Medical Centers, visit www.pacificmedicalcenters.org or call 1-888-4-PACMED.

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