During this busy season, we can be tempted to increase unhealthy behavior — such as drinking more alcohol, eating more sweets, getting less sleep and exercising less. This in turn lowers our defenses and makes every experience — both positive and negative — seem magnified. Here are some tips to help you come through the holiday season with more joy and less stress.
1. Recognize the signs of stress and burnout
As caregivers, we give and give and give, and during the holidays we give even more! All that giving can add up to high stress levels or even full-on burnout that creeps up on you before you know it.
In my book, AARP's Juggling Work and Caregiving, I explain it this way: "The prolonged stress builds up, we are robbed of energy, and sometimes we reach a point of total emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. We may lose motivation completely or feel we just don't care about our loved ones, our other relationships or our work. We may feel that we've lost ourselves in the vastness of caregiving and that nothing we can do will make a difference. If you feel like this most of the time, you may have reached burnout." Be aware of emotional ups and downs, fatigue levels, foggy thinking, inability to sit still or the opposite — feeling frozen and unable to get anything done.
2. Anticipate your own holiday hot buttons
Are there holiday activities or toxic relatives that trigger stress or unhappy memories? Are you feeling grief or loss that overcomes you at certain times of day? Do unhelpful relatives regularly arrive for the holidays and criticize your caregiving? Are there topics it's better to avoid when the family gathers? It may be best to limit your exposure to — or even avoid — certain places, events or people. If you can't do that, prepare yourself. Minimize the drama, don't try to resolve longtime family problems over the holidays, try short encounters and develop quick exit strategies. Mentally put yourself in a protective bubble, letting negative energy bounce off without hurting, annoying or distressing you.
3. Mind your own mind-set
Acknowledge all your emotions, including fears, frustrations and sadness, during the holidays. All those emotions are perfectly normal. Try to stay mindful, concentrating on what you are doing in any given moment, rather than letting your mind wander to your ever-growing to-do list. Stay focused on the positives: Think about what you can accomplish instead of what you can't; celebrate what your loved ones can do, rather than mourning what they can no longer participate in; revel in the holiday joys you will experience, instead of missing those you'll bypass; appreciate the help you are receiving rather than resenting those who aren't supportive. Negative thinking actually activates your body's stress response, so steer your mind elsewhere when you start down the slippery slope of negative thinking.
4. Keep self-care at the top of the list
It's easy to let this slip when you're even busier than usual — just when you need it most. Keep it simple and incorporate it into your daily caregiving routine if possible.
For example: Make time for exercise; it can boost your mood. Even something as simple as walking in a shopping mall, dancing to holiday music, or stretching or doing jumping jacks while watching holiday movies can help. Try yoga, meditation or tai chi to reduce stress and help you sleep better. Limit sugary foods that can cause an energy and emotional crash as blood sugar plummets. Get outside for some mood-elevating vitamin D from sunlight, or consider therapeutic lighting if you suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Relax with some aromatherapy, using scents such as citrus and lavender to soothe yourself.