Tips for a stress-free holiday season

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The desire to create a picture-perfect Christmas can often put a strain on relationships. Photo / Getty Images
The desire to create a picture-perfect Christmas can often put a strain on relationships. Photo / Getty Images

The holiday season: a time of fun, relaxation and family. Or is it how Collins Dictionary describes stress - as mental, emotional or physical exhaustion.

Mention this season and there will be varying responses. Some love it, some hate it. It's a time when we may experience exhaustion, expectations, isolation, disappointment, aloneness, inferiority, being overwhelmed and at times misunderstood.

Most of us are just plain worn out, yet we long to create and achieve the kind of holiday time sold to us by the media. Images of perfection, happy families, designer settings and gourmet food goad us on - if only we had the luxury of a limitless budget, an events organiser and a chef.

Many of us arrive at year end worrying if there is enough food and champers, about the credit card bills coming in January, and experiencing shame and disappointment that perhaps the Christmas we wanted for our children we couldn't give.

Many people find this time of year stressful. More than half of us are likely to experience some form of stress-related depression now and this often forces us to look at ourselves and our partners. Just when we want everything to be perfect and for our respective families to see how well we are coping, stress, fatigue, relationships, hidden fears and worries often surface.

Here are 10 relationship tips to make the holiday season as happy as you want.

1. Remember what's important. A young boy once said: "Love is what's in the room at Christmas, when you stop opening presents, and listen." Let go of perfection; go back to basics.

2. Value your relationship as the central pivot for your family. Put it first, over the tasks, the trappings, even the traditions of the New Year. None of it has value unless you and your partner can provide the atmosphere you want. Your children will take the cue from the two of you.

3. Talk to each other. Say to your partner, "I'd like to talk about what we would like this year. Is this a good time?" If it's not, try to find a mutually okay time within the next 24 hours. Set a time limit so you both know the time frames. Half an hour is a good start. Sit down and talk about your hopes, dreams, fears and expectations. Tell them what you remember as a child about holidays and why you want it to be a particular way. For many of us, our parents' daily patterns are magnified at get-togethers, for example, a mother's desire for perfectionism and need for approval and a father's silence and veiled criticism of her. Then swap and listen to your partner's experience.

4. Be there for each other. In most relationships one of you will want to talk and one of you will avoid talking. Take a deep breath. It is your relationship with each other which will have more impact than any present/meal/and so on. Say when you feel overwhelmed. Just knowing that your partner is willing to really listen and make sense of what is important to you can help to ease the tension and increase a sense of connection. Don't expect your partner to be able to mind read or know what you need - tell them.

5. Identify together the specific causes of your holiday stress. What causes the most stress and anxiety for you? Money worries? Tension with certain family members? Work out how to manage those issues together.

6. Share at a family meeting. Once you and your partner know how you would like this time to be, consider having a larger family meeting with your children so that your whole family can plan the New Year with some give and take that can make everyone happy.

7. Be on a team. Know that it's quite normal when you get together with your siblings and parents for some of the old family patterns to re-emerge. Share with your partner what you notice you do when you are around your family. They may be able to help you be different so you don't have to feel smaller or less of who you are. If you see your partner collapsing into old behaviour around their parents, feel compassion and empathy for how it might have been for them growing up in that environment. Reach out to them and remind them you are a team.

8. What do you need for yourself? Try to do one thing each day that is looking after yourself. Try to do one fun thing each day that connects you with your partner. It can be as simple as sharing the morning paper cartoon.

9. Take time out. Have an agreement between the two of you that it's okay to ask them to hold the fort while you have five minutes' time out. Find a quiet place, even if it's the bathroom. Stress, anxiety and depression are common during the festive season. Reassure yourself that these feelings are normal. Make a pact with your loved one to give you a sign that says, "I'm here. You're okay."

10. Look for longer-term solutions. Remember that people under stress tend to "self-medicate" with alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, or even food or exercise. These ways of shutting out what is going on in your relationships won't solve the problem.

Aim for the good times and have a Happy New Year.

Brenda Rawlings is a counsellor who has worked with hundreds of couples in New Zealand and Australia: relationships.co.nz

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