I’m Dreaming of a Stress-Free Christmas: Family health over the holidays

Written by Dr. Sandra Allison, Northern Health Chief Medical health Officer and Andrea Palmer, Northern Health Communications Advisor to Public and Population Health

 

In the now-classic Canadian tale of holiday mayhem, Stuart Mclean’s Dave Cooks the Turkey, befuddled husband, father, and record store owner Dave realizes with alarm (on Christmas Eve) that not only has he been tasked with cooking the Christmas turkey – but that in fact this means he should have actually purchased one. While amusing to hear, Dave’s ensuing story of holiday-prep turmoil may have been a difficult lived experience.  Balancing family and workplace commitments while shopping, cooking and entertaining make this time of year busy and stress may not be avoidable – but there are ways we can manage holiday pressures end enjoy the season.

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers some great, practical tips on staying grounded, calm and capable during the holidays. As they say, it’s hard to think of Peace on Earth without peace of mind (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2014)!

Plan ahead. If you’re entertaining, use the “keep it simple” strategy. Try menus you can make ahead of time or at least partially prepare and freeze. Decorate, cook, shop, or do whatever’s on your list in advance. If you’re visiting (or supporting your guests), consider a plan for getting home safely at the end of the festivities - many communities offer special holiday transportation services and/or free ride programs like Operation Red Nose. Then you can really relax and enjoy visiting friends, relatives and coworkers.  

As much as possible, organize and delegate. Make a list and check it twice. Rather than one person cooking the whole family meal, invite guests to bring a dish. Kids can help with gift-wrapping, decorating, baking, or addressing or decorating cards. 

Practice mindful eating and drinking. The holidays are great time for the giving and receiving of delicious nibbles and drinks. Eating ‘one more cookie’ or partaking in ‘one more drink’ are normal parts of holiday celebrations but be mindful of how your body is feeling.  You can help maintain your regular sense of well-being by eating regular meals and snacks and engaging in enjoyable physical activity. This is a great time of year to combine indoor pleasures with outdoor fun-times like snowman-building or rambles through now-sparkling neighbourhoods!  

Stay within budget. Finances are a huge source of stress for many people. Again, eliminate the unnecessary. Set a budget, and stay within it. A call, a visit or a note to tell someone how important they are to you can be as touching as and more meaningful than a gift. You can also enjoy free activities like walking or driving around to look at holiday decorations, going window shopping without buying, or making your own decorations or presents. Craigslist and swap events are great places to find inexpensive brand-new items, and excellent-condition used items.

Remember what the holiday season is about for you. Make this your priority. Whether it’s the usual holiday advertising that creates a picture that the holidays are about shiny new toys, always-happy families and gift giving, remember that this season is really about sharing, loving, and time spent with family and loved ones. Develop your own meaningful family traditions that don’t have to cost a lot of money. Also, remember not to take things too seriously. Finding fun or silly things to do, playing games or watching movies that make you laugh, playing with pets, and spending time alone or with a partner or friends are all good ways to reduce stress.

   The Lamont Family (2015) enjoying some winter snowshoeing.

Invite others. If you have few family or friends, reach out to neighbours. Find ways to spend the holidays with other people. If you’re part of a family gathering, invite someone you know is alone to your gathering.

Connect with your community. Attend diverse cultural events with family and friends. Help out at a local food bank or another community organization.

Gift-giving made easier and less expensive. Try putting family members and partners’ names in a hat and buy one gift for the person you draw; this can help reduce expenses and refocus energies on thoughtfulness, creativity and truly personal gifts. Encourage children to make gifts for friends and relatives so the focus is on giving rather than buying. If you find that your list of gift recipients is ever-growing, think of combined gifts for people who live in the same household or arrange a mystery gift swap by asking friends to each bring one wrapped ‘mystery gift,’ then draw names to decide who picks out a gift first.

When the weather outside is frightful…:  Some people get the winter blahs each year, and a much smaller number (2-3%) develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Paying attention to nutrition, exercise and sleep and being careful with alcohol are also important if you have a history of depression. If your low mood carries on into the New Year and starts to affect your daily life, you should see your family doctor.

Dave’s family did enjoy a turkey in the end, albeit one achieved through rather non-traditional means involving a hairdryer, a hotel, and a bottle of scotch.  Dave somehow managed to deliver on his commitments to his family, but had he been better at delegating and sharing his tasks, he may not have spent precious time ladling gravy on top of lightbulbs that night to make the house smell like he actually cooked the bird. This is a time of year we may all catch ourselves making big promises – and we would be well-served to remember that delivering on small ones, liking simply enjoying each other’s company, has more substantial effects in the end. Enjoy your holidays, be they in company of family, friends, faith or in quiet contemplation.