text by Sari Roth-Roemer, Ph.D.

Presents to buy, meals to prepare, parties to plan, cards to send, family to see, airports to navigate, gifts to wrap, cookies to bake, trees to decorate… the list goes on and on.

Every year it is more or less the same, we know the holidays are coming and yet many of us are surprised and frustrated by how busy and overwhelmed we are by the time they get here. Those of us who are stressed pretend that life goes on as usual, right up until the time the holidays are smack in front of our faces demanding our time and attention. Those of us who have smiles on our faces and who are minimally stressed have already made room for the holidays in our autumn routine. That’s the secret. “Really?” you groan to yourself; “That’s the secret? To become one of those people who boasts about getting their holiday shopping done in August?” Well, kinda… 

Stress occurs when our normal routine is broken, challenging us to spread our resources thinner than we had anticipated. When I say resources, I’m talking about emotional, cognitive, physical, energetic, time and monetary resources. When we fail to plan for over-expenditure of all of these at once, we are setting ourselves up for overload. Our stress level rises and we become depleted. Sometimes that depletion can become so severe that our immune system breaks down, and we get physically sick, adding further to our holiday load.

On the other hand, when we adjust our expectations and plan ahead, a whole different scenario unfolds. We can anticipate how we want to spend our time, energy and money, saving not just those resources from running out, but protecting our emotional, cognitive and physical reserves, as well. Yes, I am asking you to do the obvious. Expect that the holidays will come into your lives starting sometime around Thanksgiving when holiday music, decorations and merchandise are visible in retail stores, on television and in magazines. Decide how you will adjust your routine to accommodate their annual appearance. Make room for the holidays in all areas of your life.

Instead of anticipating the holidays with dread and worry, allow yourself to envision how you would like them to unfold. You’re going on a trip to see your family? Aside from the practical (buying plane tickets, reserving a car and getting a dog sitter in place), look ahead to the busy weeks before you leave. Literally plan out time in your day to take care of the things that need to get done. As an alternative to being annoyed by all you have to do, accept that this is a part of your fall routine, and adjust your schedule accordingly. Then allow yourself to think about the things you are looking forward to on the trip.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Yup, I’m asking you to be in control of how you spend your time and energy. Rather than being a victim to the yearly holiday ritual, decide how you want to divvy up your personal resources. More than that, be aware of your holiday attitude. Are you telling yourself how much you dislike this time of year and how it intrudes on your life, or are you allowing yourself to focus on the aspects of the holidays you enjoy? 

Sure the holidays ask more from us, than any other time of year, but if we allow them to, they can also give more to us. We don’t have to just spend our resources, if we’re smart about it, we can actually replenish them. Increased time and connection with friends and people we love, sharing old memories and traditions, making new memories and traditions, spiritual and emotional renewal, taking time off from work and taking care of ourselves…all of these are available to us if we allow it.

Concerned you’ll forget? Here’s a “Holiday Stress Less List” for your fridge:

• As the holidays approach, reserve one hour each day and two hours on the weekend to take care of “holiday related” details.

• When you think about the holidays…SMILE.

• When you stress about the holidays…TAKE THREE DEEP BREATHS.

• Focus on at least one positive aspect of the holidays you’re looking forward to this year.

Expect the time pressures and added responsibility at this time of year, and look forward to the pleasure that the holidays can bring into your life. When you anticipate what you’d like to have happen, you’re more than likely to find it. So what would you prefer? Stressed Holidays or Happy Holidays? It’s really up to you! 

Sari Roth-Roemer, Ph.D. is a medical psychologist and director of Intuitive Psychology. www.intuitivepsychology.wordpress.com.