December 19, 2013

Surviving the holidays

Filed under: Uncategorized — Admin @ 8:57 am

It may be the season to be jolly, but for many people Christmas is more akin to a headache than a joy. The pressure to buy presents, cook the right food, and make it through with the extended family. Or the reminder of a lost loved one. The following Q & A session with psychotherapists Bernie Bolger and Hadass Segal  as presented on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife on ABC Radio 702 on Monday 16 December 2013 gives us some helpful tips for survival.

Listen to the podcast on Tony Delroys Nightlife

Surviving the holidays

The fairy lights are twinkling, the eggnog is almost ready and the reindeers are gearing up for the big journey from the arctic. It all seems delightful, so why do so many of us find the holiday season so challenging? In this hour we’re talking with psychotherapists Bernie Bolger and Hadass Segal about the tips to overcome holiday stress and make the most of what can be a joyous and rewarding season.

What is it about the holiday season that stresses people out? Isn’t this meant to be the time we look forward to all year?

It’s a combination of expectations and a sudden ramping up in pace.

December is the month of lunacy.  Everyone wants to catch up with you before Christmas, even people you haven’t seen all year. Work deadlines have to be met and it suddenly becomes imperative that they’re done BEFORE CHRISTMAS. And then there’s the shopping.  Having worked in retail for a very long time, quite frankly people appear to go utterly mad. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves and others to come up with the perfect gift. And if we get it wrong, we fear the repercussions on our relationships.

Why do we place so much pressure on ourselves to get the right gift?

Gifts are a way of showing people we know them and value them. They’re tokens loaded with symbolism.  Spending a fortune on something our loved ones don’t value makes us feel unappreciated and taken for granted.

On the flip side, getting a gift that you can’t stand makes you feel like the person giving it doesn’t know you or value you at all. A gift is an opportunity to show someone you understand their need. My advice is – make a family rule around a price limit that everyone has to adhere to. Then do a bit of research beforehand and sneakily get a sense of what they would want.  And try to give experiences rather than things – we are all overwhelmed with stuff we don’t need. Instead of buying stuff, buy people experiences. Movie tickets, a restaurant or massage voucher, a dance or music class or  and if your budget is very small, a homemade voucher in which you pledge to spend an afternoon doing their activity of choice with a loved one can be much more memorable than an expensive gadget. As long as that activity isn’t shopping!

Another tip is to take the emphasis off the gift and onto the words in the card. Ask everyone to write a card that acknowledges some of the strengths of the recipient and maybe a story or memory that you share with them. Those words will resonate for a lot longer than any gift you can buy.

What about our health during the holiday season? How can we enjoy ourselves without destroying ourselves in the process?

The holidays can become about excess – we overspend, over-eat, drink too much and sleep too little. Our usual exercise and food routines are interrupted and we can tend to let everything slip and then regret it. But as with anything, a bit of moderation goes a long way. And that involves planning. If you know you’d die rather than miss out on Aunty Madge’s Christmas pudding, plan to eat smaller, healthier meals before you go to Aunt Madge’s house. And use any time you have off work to go for a walk. Try to walk in an area you wouldn’t normally visit if you have time, or reintroduce yourself to your neighbourhood park if you don’t. Take advantage of our gorgeous beaches and make your catch up with friends and family include a dip in the water. And if all else fails, up your dose of multivitamins so you keep your immunity high.

For a lot of people, the biggest stress involves their relationships with family. Why are there so many family fights around this time of year?

When the decorations go up, the gloves come off! Christmas Eve arrives and at about 6pm it’s all over.  All that is left to do is go home and spend time with the family.  And in some cases this is great but for others – there is nowhere left to hide.  No late nights at the office or no running around with the kids to the soccer pitch or music lesson.  No – couples who have been really good at avoiding each other all year are suddenly confronted with the fact that they have days and days of togetherness to look forward to as many of them have to take their annual leave between Christmas and New Years. And they just can’t do it.

Then when extended family is involved, people are suddenly thrust together with people they haven’t spent more than a couple of hours with all year. Our siblings and their families might have very different parenting styles to us, and suddenly we’re at the frontline, watching each other and often judging or feeling judged.

Plus there’s the tendency to slip into the old family dynamics no matter how old we are. So we know how to push each others’ button. I have a client who is an incredibly mature successful businesswoman, but her older brother insists on calling her “baby betty” when he sees her.  Add alcohol and baby Betty can have a major tantrum. I have heard 50 year olds tell their 80 year old mother “she started it”!

So how do we deal with those tensions?

It seems that few of us are immune to the occasional family spat and many of us will experience even long term ongoing tension within our family.

Arguments may start over everything from when exactly decorations should be allowed out of storage to whether or not a hot lunch is appropriate in Sydney on a 40 degree day. Add to this the “factions” that can develop within larger families along with a good dose of general family angst and you have a recipe for disaster.

Family involves a lot of emotion and even a lot of history. Most of your family know which buttons to press (or not press) and you know the same about them.

In addition to this, we don’t tend to be very polite with our family so manners go out the window and honesty steps in.

Remember that when you have an emotional response that your body is likely going into fight-flight-freeze mode which means that systems throughout your body are kicking into action. Many years ago this would have helped you flee from danger and hunt down your dinner but it doesn’t help you to carve a roast or have a civil conversation with a sibling so you may just need some time out to cool down so you can deal with the situation in a level headed way.

 The 7 Holiday Survival Tips

  1. Most important of all – maintain a sense of humour!
  2. Be a good guest – respect the rules and values of the house.
  3. Before you walk into the situation, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave.  Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about why they were unpleasant and what you could do to change the dynamics of the situation.
  4. Choose your battles. Ask yourself, is it worth it? How big a deal is this really? If other family members are being negative you can make the decision to step back and not let yourself be affected by this. If its not worth mentioning or getting into a fight about, let it go.
  5. Listen more than you talk. You don’t have to agree with the person you are talking to but you also do not need to prove that you are right about everything. On Boxing Day, would you rather be looking back at the fun you had as a family, or reflecting on your victory over Uncle Max’s political views? A little “Mmhmmm”, “Oh?” and “I can see how you feel” goes a long way.
  6. Take a break and offer breaks to others if it seems like they need it. If someone is getting on your nerves, take a quick drive to pick up some more ice. If a Mum in the family is looking overwhelmed, offer to take the little ones outside for a game.
  7. Remember that Christmas is meant to be a fun time and that it is not just about pleasing others. At the same time, it is important not to put too much pressure on yourself to be feeling hunky dory all day long. It’s ok to feel annoyed, frustrated or upset by how family members are behaving but making them feel the same way will probably only make matters worse. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the slightly humid but still festively pine scented air.


This is a time of milestones and rituals. What about those who are coping with the loss of loved ones for whom this is a difficult reminder?

This is such a difficult conundrum. For some people, traditions and rituals are very, very important.  In fact research would say that in the long run, they tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds.  But for others these rituals can be a painful reminder of the loss of someone special, especially if the loss is a recent one. So the question is how can we honour one person’s needs and desires without offending or upsetting someone else?

Empathy plays a huge part in dealing with this.  If this is the first Christmas without a loved one, there is no point in pretending it isn’t.  There will be a lot of firsts throughout the year and acknowledging them as we move through them is probably the safest way to deal with the emotions.  One thing is for sure – suppression and denial is not a strategy.

While some of us can’t stand to be forced together at Christmas, for others being far from our families can be lonely and isolating. What are some tips for coping?

Plan ahead.  Don’t expect to be miraculously rescued on Christmas morning.  So if you know you are going to be without family, be strategic and organise an Orphan’s Christmas.  Guaranteed you will not be the only one of your friends who is alone. Remember it only takes one person to be proactive and organise a gathering.  Alternatively let your friends or work colleagues know that this time of year is actually hard for you because you are far away from home and family – you might be amazed at how many invitations to lunch you get.

And then there is Skype – book in a time with far away friends and family to connect through the wonders of technology. The best part about it is there is an ‘end’ button.

And for those who don’t have a break at all? How do we avoid getting resentful if we are working over Christmas? What are some tips to actually enjoy working through?

Funnily enough, a lot of people who work over the holidays enjoy it. There is generally a sense of goodwill and generosity amongst co-workers who spend this time together.  Again the research shows that doing something which enhances the lives of others actually increases our own sense of wellbeing.  So try to reframe why you are working and see it as a positive. Gratitude is also a great strategy which can help us feel better about ourselves. Be grateful you have a job – there are many people out there who don’t…

The reality is, not many people are actually rostered on throughout the whole holiday period and in a lot of cases, most employers give holiday priority to parents of young kids.

And then there are those of us from different cultures who don’t celebrate. About those who feel left out of the dominant culture?

There are many cultures – Islam, Judaism, for example – for whom Christmas is not an event. For some it can be a relief not to have the pressure of hosting or attending family events. But for others, it can be a reminder of not fitting in to the main stream. Many of my cliens come from a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas but I always encourage those who don’t celebrate to see if there is anything of value that they can relate to in the season. If we get back to the core meaning of the festive season, it’s about giving not getting. So even if you have no connection to the religious aspects of Christmas, if you can focus on generosity of spirit, or doing something charitable, you will find it rewarding. There are lots of charities and soup kitchens who would welcome volunteers on Christmas day – who better to volunteer than those who don’t have to be at their own family events?

So how do you explain to the kids that they won’t be getting presents like their classmates are?

I think it’s a great opportunity to teach your kids respect for other cultural and religious paradigms. It’s a chance to show them that we all have different customs and rituals and that diversity is what makes life interesting.

I have a client whose three kids came home from school asking whether Santa was real, and, if so, why he never brought them presents.  She was so focussed on not letting them ruin Santa for their classmates that she, by her own admission made a mess of it. She told them Santa wasis real – he just doesn’t shop for them!! I wouldn’t advise that approach – talk about giving your kids a persecution complex!

The Holiday period can also be a very difficult time for divorced or separated families.  What would you suggest they can do to turn this into a positive experience for everyone?

This is a great time for parents to really think about what is in the best interests of the children.  Of course the absolute ideal is for the adults to actually behave like grown-ups, stop the bickering and get on with being parents.  If a joint family dinner is just that bridge too far, then make sure the arrangements which are worked out, mean the kids get to spend quality time with both families over the Holiday period.  Not everything has to happen on Christmas Day.  All the research shows that it is the conflict between parents which is the most damaging to kids. And just think, if the parents can sort out the logistics around Christmas amicably, there is hope they will be able to do it in other parts of their lives…

This time of year can be tricky for people who struggle with addictions and have memories of past holidays that involve drinking or drugging. How can they cope?

It is particularly challenging for people with addictions. Drinking, for example, is such a ritualised part of the season that it can be a real struggle to get through the office party, the neighbourhood party and your own family Christmas without picking up a drink.

And it is often exacerbated by people who are trying to be hospitable but are insensitive to a person’s addiction. We push our family and workmates to have “just one drink” but if you struggle with addiction just one drink can lead to complete relapse. And it’s the same with food – we all know someone, sometimes ourselves, who push others to overeat. We’ve prepared a big feast and we don’t want anyone to leave until the last crumb of Christmas pudding is finished, even if it means making yourself sick in the process. And for those of us who have a hard time saying no and putting in boundaries, we need to practice saying no in a way that’s assertive but not aggressive “that punch looks amazing, but I’m fine thanks” is hard to argue with. Or “I’d love to take a slice of that amazing cake home but right now I can’t fit another thing in”.

So for anyone who struggles with addiction it’s about firstly, being aware and prepared before we enter the Lion’s Den. If you know you’re going to a party with lots of temptations, ask yourself if your sobriety is worth risking? Or use other self -soothing skills to get yourself through a night when everyone around you is getting obliterated. Sometimes it’s good to give yourself a job to do on the night – make yourself the official photographer so you have something to do to distract you from temptation.

Also, importantly, it’s all about creating new HEALTHY rituals. There are many support groups and 12 step programs who run special Christmas meetings – AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. If you’re newly sober and have never woken up before noon on Christmas day, set yourself a goal to attend a morning meeting. There’s a great sense of connection if you can share your struggles with others who are also working to overcome addiction.