Holiday Rituals: The Joy and Stress

Humantold November 24, 2020

For all of its promise, the holiday season can be a lot for many of us. There are a few reasons why this happens. The holidays are defined by ritualized activities and time spent with our families. Depending on a person’s past experiences and their family’s dynamic, this time of year can be joyful or something they dread.

For all of its promise, the holiday season can be a lot for many of us. It is a period of time each year when we over-consume, overspend, and overeat. Coupled with that, the pressure to enjoy this time can make us feel overwhelmed.

Needless to say, holiday stress is a very real thing. It is common for many of us (perhaps ironically) not to feel joyful during this season. There are a few reasons why this happens. The holidays are defined by ritualized activities and time spent with our families. Depending on a person's past experiences and their family's dynamic, this time of year can be exciting or something they dread.

A Somatic Experience

Every year during the holidays, we hear the same songs, smell the same smells, eat the same foods, and see the same people. This is a somatic experience that is created by the ritualized nature of the holidays.

For people who had positive holiday traditions in their childhoods, this time of year is connected to a body sensation that feels good. They look forward to the smells and sensations that are associated with these months.

The opposite is true, as well. For individuals who had negative experiences during the holidays growing up (or as a grown-up), this time of year can be very upsetting. People who associate the holidays with bad memories or traumas can find the annual reliving of the same smells, music, and other sensations to be very uncomfortable or painful. This can make the pressure to appear joyful and meet family and friends' expectations difficult, if not impossible.

Managing Holiday Stress Tip #1 

  • Identify your triggers. If you are a person who has negative feelings around the holiday season, try to identify what specifically is causing you to feel stress. Is it a certain song, smell, or person? Once you identify what is triggering, you can take action to avoid it or prepare for it.

Disrupting Our Norms

The holidays represent a disruption to our daily routines. Routines play a positive role in our well-being; they help keep us on track with our health and personal goals. When things like travel, houseguests, or dietary changes disrupt our routine, it becomes easier to feel overwhelmed.

The holiday season is about giving. For some of us, this can make prioritizing actions that help ourselves (like our routines) more difficult to justify. However, without some sense of normalcy and self-care, it is harder to feel good and be present with ourselves and our loved ones.

Managing Holiday Stress Tip #2 

  • Keep your routine. Try to maintain at least one aspect of your routine. Maybe that is an early morning meditation or an evening walk. Decide in advance what part of your routine you are going to make space for and commit to it.

Family Dynamics

Oftentimes at the center of our holiday stress is our families. Family time is one of the most ritualized aspects of the holidays and, depending on the person, it can be the best or the worst part.

When it comes to our families, there is a lot that we cannot control. It goes without saying that every family has its own issues. This is because family dynamics are complicated. Each individual has their own unique feelings and objectives that they bring to the table.

Here are a few things that can make spending time with family during the holidays stressful.

  • Outdated roles.  Every family has its own unique system and each member within that system has a "role" that they play. As we grow and develop a stronger sense of self, we naturally move away from the role that we played in our family. However, returning to the location and people where it originated can make it easy to slip back into old dynamics that we no longer wish to partake in. For example, a person who tried to ensure that everyone was getting along as a child, may feel pressure to do this as an adult.
  • Regression. When we find ourselves in stressful situations, it is not uncommon to use a coping mechanism called regression. This defense mechanism is an unconscious reaction where we revert to childlike patterns of behavior to handle what is happening around us. This can happen a lot when we are around our families—especially during the already stressful holiday season. Returning home or just spending time with our families can cause us to revert to past behaviors or actions rooted in old dynamics like fighting with our siblings or not tidying up after ourselves.
  • Expectations. Expectations from our families around the holiday season are high. There is pressure to give the perfect gift, attend events, and to be happy and enjoy the time with our families— even if they make us unhappy. The expectation that we perform a certain way during the holidays is very real and can create unnecessary stress.
    Each of these things actively takes us out of ourselves and into a scenario that we have either outgrown or is not aligned with our highest good. As we enter the holiday season, it is worth considering how we can prepare ourselves for the stress that our families cause us.

In most situations, there is very little that is actually in our control. However, we can monitor and care for our own actions and reactions. Sometimes the best we can do is be aware of unhealthy dynamics that are occurring and try to be present with ourselves in the moment.

Here is what unhealthy family dynamics look like:

  • Conflict is not resolved.
  • Boundaries are not present or respected.
  • Family members are critical of each other.
  • There is no sense of unity or empathy.

Here is what healthy family dynamics look like:

  • When conflict occurs, members address it with respect and consideration for each other's feelings.
  • Personal boundaries are clear and respected.
  • The environment is positive and supportive.

Managing Holiday Stress Tip #3 

Be aware of dynamics at play. You might not be able to change your family’s dynamics (right away at least), but you can be cognizant of how they are unhealthy. Remember, you can't control what other people do or how they react. However, you can observe and not participate in unhealthy dynamics.

No matter where your holiday stress comes from, make sure you prioritize yourself and your personal boundaries during this season. This can look like saying no to events or gatherings that you don’t feel comfortable attending, or maintaining self-care habits like not drinking as much or talking to a therapist.

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