The Most Stressful Time of the Year

How to save your sanity during the holidays

By Jamey Bradbury

Family, food, presents, parties: These are the earmarks of the holiday season. They’re also the most common causes of holiday stress. Instead of pulling your hair out or drowning your sorrows in gallons of nog, learn how to beat the stressors that threaten to turn your merry Christmas into a scary Christmas.

To go Outside, or not to go Outside?

For Alaskans in particular, travel can be the most stressful — and costly — part of the holiday season. Dave Bates, clinical director at Clearwater Counseling in Fairbanks, suggests that families evaluate and possibly split the cost of holiday travel with their relatives. Take turns visiting and hosting faraway family members. And when you do get together with family, do what you can to make the experience pleasant.

“Especially around the holidays, it’s important to learn to set appropriate boundaries with family members who manipulate or control you or ask for money,” Bates explains. “I’ll help my clients draw lines for what are appropriate conversations, or encourage them to limit time with certain family members.”

If you do travel out of state, pack plenty of activities and charge your devices to keep your kids busy once you’re on the plane. At layovers, take advantage of time to stretch your legs — or to let your little ones sneak in a nap.

Of course, there’s the option of avoiding relatives altogether. “So many of us aren’t from Alaska,” says Bates. “Our friends often become our Alaskan family.” Bates’ own family invites friends over for a traditional Thanksgiving, requesting that each person bring a side dish.

Party Plans

Sharing the burden can keep you from stressing out over big holiday meals, whether you go for a potluck-style dinner or take responsibility for the Christmas meal only, with friends or relatives covering Thanksgiving dinner or brunch on New Year’s Day.

But if you’re set on hosting, plan ahead. Self-styled “Mess Arrester” Linda Herr lays out a holiday plan for getting organized, starting as early as November, when she suggests you begin cleaning house one room at a time. By early December, you can start planning your menu and buying ingredients that are easily stored ahead of time. Chipping away at your party to-do list little by little will cut down on a last-minute frenzy of cleaning and cooking.

“Or check into having your party catered,” Herr offers, pointing out that you don’t have to do everything. The same rule applies to attending other people’s parties: “You can only go to so many events, so decide which are important to you. Although choosing is difficult, if you try to go to all of them, you may not enjoy any of them.”

'Presents’ of Mind

It’s hard to decline invitations to fabulous holiday parties, and it’s just as difficult to say no when it comes to buying presents.

“We all feel like we have to spend three months’ salary to make sure the kids are happy at Christmas,” says John Fugett of Anchorage Family Counseling. “But then we’re still paying for it the next year. And then the kids have this expectation of the types and amounts of presents they’re going to get, and that’s not really teaching them the reality of money or what Christmas is about.”

Instead of breaking the bank, Fugett offers, focus on involving kids in family traditions – including traditions they want to create themselves. “Traditions are extremely important to kids, and sometimes we have it all planned out for them. You may fondly remember a Christmas movie from your childhood and want to have your kids watch it, but they may have other ideas. Ask them what they really want to do over the holidays.”

When it comes to buying presents, think about how much you want to spend on each child and create a budget. For friends and relatives, Herr suggests picking a theme each holiday: “Buy everyone clothes one year, books the next.”

Finally, says Herr, if you absolutely have to do a little last-minute shopping, do it while your kids are in school — or allow yourself to spring for a babysitter. You’ll be less stressed if you’re not dragging the kids through a packed mall.

Boredom Busters

Once the kids are out of school, you’ve got a new problem: boredom.

“It’s common for us to want to cave up and be inactive over the holidays,” says Fugett. “But then the kids are tired because they haven’t been outside, so they don’t sleep well, so they’re cranky.”

And keep in mind that the most valuable gift can be the gift of time, says Bates. “Save some of your summer activities for winter, and get your kids to help you restore a car or tie flies.” Or you can tackle two things at once by getting your kids to help bake cookies you’ll give to neighbors or package goodies to mail to faraway relatives.”

In addition to getting the kids involved in holiday baking and present-wrapping, Fugett suggests finding a way to get involved in your community as a family. “Kids respond amazingly well to that; they feel like they’ve done something for others, and it becomes really meaningful to them.”

And that, he says, is what the holidays are really all about.