Hometown visits, elaborate meals, colorfully wrapped packages and cards with hand written holiday wishes are all important traditions, but the mechanics of the holiday experience can cause any light hearted merrymaker to feel a little stressed out.
According to Melanie Abts, Rio Salado College counseling faculty chair, most holiday stress is predictable, so the best strategy is simply to plan for it.
"Being prepared for uncomfortable situations allows us to identify circumstances that are beyond our control and keep things in perspective," Abts said.
For example, whether flying or driving, holiday travel is ugly. It just is. Winter weather can cause canceled flights or poor driving conditions, children are wound up and can't be still, security is heightened, traffic is jammed, and there are any number of hiccups that can happen along the way.
Abts suggests avoiding the chaos completely. "Fly on Christmas day if you can," Abts said. "The airports are completely empty, the flight crew is cheerful, and you'll probably get your choice of seating."
"If that's not possible," she added, "Just plan for the worst case scenario. Give yourself plenty of time so that you don't feel rushed and make sure your carry-on can cover you for a day or two in case your luggage gets lost. Bring a set of earplugs or a music player and lots of snacks and you’ll be set."
Of course, hometown visits aren't always the most joyous occasions either. A critical parent, sibling rivalries or even running into an ex can be troublesome.
"If you know you’re going to a family dinner and you know a particular person will bring up something you did last year, or that you’re not a good enough parent or that you're too thin or too fat or why aren't you married yet? You can plan your response ahead of time," Abts said. “You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself and your reactions. "
Resources like money and time are also in short supply during the holidays. Running low on either can cause tension and, according to Abts, it's important to prioritize to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
"Sometimes we just take on too much," Abs said. "Especially Rio students who may not even be on a break. We have start dates as late as December 5, and the holiday season can be a high-need time for those students.”
Abs recommends the stress management workshop available on the Rio Salado College counseling site for students, or anyone else who is feeling distressed during the holidays.
"Distress is different,” Abts explains. "Distress comes from the game changers like death, divorce, or even learning that you have a baby coming. Even if it's a positive event, if you're already stressed, you might be at your breaking point. It's important to realize that yes, you are in crisis, but you can get through it."
According to Abts, although some people take comfort in holiday traditions, abandoning high maintenance rituals during times of distress might be helpful.
“It’s important during these times to identify what’s important to you and cut out absolutely everything else. How important are all of the rituals?” Abts said. “If you’re already at the breaking point, don’t expect yourself to bake seven cakes or to plan a charity event. It’ll be ok. If you don’t do those things, the next day will still happen."