How to deal with holiday stress and anxiety


By Brian Goslow

This will be the first Christmas that Rakan Smith, 53, will spend without one of his parents; his father passed away in August, joining his mom, who died in 2001. A long-time relationship ended this summer. “I will be a single orphan at the holidays,” he said.

Growing up, the holidays were always a time of wonder for Smith, of Greenville, S.C. His mother, who had been born on St. Nick’s Day (Dec. 6), would serve her family fried potato pancakes with cottage cheese and cinnamon applesauce during the holiday season, with Christmas Eve a combination of stews, soups and light rolls, complemented by lots of sweets — “especially my mother’s coconut cake and dried fruit cookies,” Smith said.

Dealing with loss during holidays

Those gatherings and the celebrations of old traditions, particularly those of the Sephardic Flemish converts that shaped his Appalachian reared mother, became rarer after Smith finished college and he relocated to Worcester, in the late 1980s. At that point, his local friends became the family he celebrated the holidays with, making lots of food and sharing compilation cassettes or CDs, a tradition that continued after Smith and his partner moved to Georgia, then back to Greenville.

The two of them reinitiated the Thanksgiving dinner tradition of his youth with a twist — “sometimes it was turkey roulades sometimes turkey schnitzel or sushi or wings” — after Smith’s mom passed on his 41st birthday.

The warmth of those gatherings came to a sudden end in 2003. While returning to Worcester for the funeral of his partner’s nephew, Smith’s partner of nearly 15 years suffered a heart attack and died; his funeral mass was held on the day before Thanksgiving. After a close friend passed away the following Easter, Smith said, “I pretty much became afraid of holidays and just tried to get past those days any way I could. I didn’t meet with others because I didn’t want to share my sadness. I haven’t been to a Christmas Mass since then.”

This year will be especially hard. While he plans to spend most of December in quiet reflection, he’s approaching the month with a positive outlook. “I will smile at folks, look with interest at photos of their smiling children, hear about Santa, facilitate holiday workshops, see decorative displays, hear familiar tunes and have some nog and grog and schnapps,” said Smith, who finds strength in having a family of friends that he knows loves him and will help him get through the holiday season by inviting him into their homes.

“I will shed tears, I will stay in bed too much, I will watch a lot of Netflix, but I will have my clothes laundered and I’ll be ready to take up any offers to do something,” Smith said. “I’m working on work for an art show and that gets me out of myself.”

That’s the kind of healthy attitude encouraged by Dr. Eudene Harry, author of Anxiety 101: The Holistic Approach to Managing Your Anxiety and Taking Back Your Life and medical director of Oasis Wellness & Rejuvenation Center, an integrative holistic lifestyle clinic in Orlando, Fla.

“The best way to go into the holidays, especially if there’s a level of dread involved, is to focus on things that are a little bit more positive,” Harry said.

“If you experienced a loss last year, and especially around the holiday season, then you have to start thinking about the things about them that you enjoyed doing with them in the holiday season, because what we do know is that the brain does change significantly when we experience a loss, but it also changes when we start thinking about love and happiness and the things that we are grateful for that we experienced with them.”

In her own instance, Harry, who lost an aunt several holiday seasons ago, will recall the times they spent cooking together. “She made the absolute best pound cake that I ever tasted.” Harry said. “So just think about the positive experiences that you had with that person — the moments when they smiled, the moments when you smiled.”

Then there are those who dread the holiday season because of bad experiences and family battles of years past that seem to grow as the years pile up. When that’s the case, Harry said it’s important to recognize that pattern and take action to reverse it, even if it means breaking the tradition of spending a holiday with the family. Unless it’s a question of distance, if you don’t see certain members any other time of the year, there’s probably a good reason.

“We start feeling obligated to do things with family or individuals we haven’t gotten along with before, because everyone is pressuring us into that situation,” Harry said. “What we can get into is a pattern that means making everyone else happy at the expense of ourselves and that’s not a very good way to experience the holiday season. Our boundaries shouldn’t go away around the holidays season.”

One way to change this is to determine and establish the way you want to experience the holiday season. “Do you want to experience it in a frenzied manner where you’re trying to make everyone else happy and placate every one, in a very uncomfortable situation for an extended period of time, that always has a negative connotation for you?” Harry asked. “Or do you want to take this moment where you view the holiday season as a time to reconnect with yourself and the actual sense of the season, which is gratitude and love?”

If there are family gatherings that will be attended by people you’ve always had issues with, Harry said it’s important to acknowledge that’s probably not ever going to change — and it’s not your responsibility to change them.

“But you can, maybe beforehand, feel them out,” Harry suggested. “Call them up or write them a letter and see what’s going on there. If you have decided that this is something that you don’t want to experience this season, create something else for yourself and send them a loving letter or a note or give them a call that says, ‘You know what, we’ve decided to do something else this season, it’s something that’s always been on our list. I wish you a happy holiday, etc.’ “

She said you’d be surprised at what comes out of taking that action. And, at the very least, you know you won’t be ending up somewhere you don’t want to be during the holiday.

If you decide, with some hesitation, to attend a family gathering, try to consider the thought process going on in the people who make you feel uneasy. “You’re not going to change anyone,” Harry said, noting that many people set out to create the perfect holiday experience — and leave everyone else feeling miserable in the process.

“They are so bent on creating a certain experience that they see nothing else, so you might not be able to touch your food before a certain time (even if you’re starved from the two-hour drive to get there). If that’s something that you feel OK subjecting yourself to, then go ahead and do that. But if you know that something is going to make you feel miserable, that tends to extend to other people and you’re going to have a poor holiday season.

“You need to establish something that works for you, that works for your family, that you’re OK with,” Harry said.

Facing the first big holiday without a loved one — at a time you’re expected to be happy, and you don’t want to bring other people down with your own grief — can only add to the pressure and stress. Harry said it’s important to allow yourself to experience any grief you’re feeling and give yourself the time and space to go through the process.

“It’s different for everybody,” she said. “Get help, certainly, if you need to, to go through that grieving process. And the first holiday season, you do need support to get through that — that could be close friends, a spouse, whatever support that you need. And realize that everybody is different. Don’t put any additional pressures on yourself.”

The death of a long-time spouse or partner isn’t the only life occurrence that could send you spiraling into holiday-time depression. Harry said recent brain scan studies have found that the brain changes the same after a person has gone through a divorce or loss of a strong friendship as it does following a death. “It really depends on how connected you were to that person,” she said.

The pull of the season usually begins in October for Janice Frederick, 51, of Worcester. Growing up, the holidays were an emotional rollercoaster for her, with her family always on eggshells wondering whether her father would be joining them for the festivities.

Thanks to her grandparents, however, warm memories of those early years remain. “Christmas at my grandparents’ was like going to Willy Wonka’s Factory,” Frederick said. “Being Swedish, practically right off the boat, there were pastries and delicious foods everywhere.”

That ended when both her grandparents passed away in 1978, followed by her parents’ divorce, which left her mom in a deep depression. “It broke her soul — and mine.” But that didn’t stop Frederick’s mother from working overtime each October — to the point of almost dropping — just so she could get her two daughters gifts for Christmas. “I watched as I opened the gifts she had left for us under the tree — and the tears in her eyes from our joy,” Frederick recalled.

Since the passing of her beloved mom three years ago, Frederick said she really doesn’t celebrate Christmas anymore; she has moved towards Wicca beliefs that warm her heart more. However, at some point during the holiday season, she said, “I will go see my mother’s grave and thank her for all those years she made our Christmas.”

She’ll also gather with friends, and “compare war stories” of seasons past. “I have gained a lot of caring people in my life now to push a lot of my sadness away,” Frederick said. “Happy Yule is what I say for now. Blessed be.”