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Image by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pixabay

In my household, October through December is a whirlwind of birthdays, holidays, events and so forth. Don’t get me wrong — I love seeing loved ones and celebrating important days and milestones. However, it can be overwhelming when you add it to an already-busy schedule of work, activities, appointments, winter camps and more. 

I spoke to JoLeann Trine — a licensed clinical professional Counselor at Thriveworks who specializes in parenting, life transitions, coping skills, anxiety and depression —on how to deal with the holiday stress. Here’s the advice she offered, which I found helpful and I hope you do too. 

The holiday season can be a stressful time for mothers with planning events, dealing with seasonal illnesses and organizing day camps for their kids. What are your best tips for managing stress and expectations? 

Stress during the holiday season can absolutely feel overwhelming. Thankfully, the ways to manage the stress and expectations are tips we use in other areas in our lives. I have three main tips. 

First, focus on what is most important to you. Prioritize the needs and wants for your family. While others may have their traditions and ways to manage this season, there is such a thing as “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Take time to truly consider what is important to you and why. 

Second tip is to not avoid your resources! I cannot count the number of times I have assumed I would have been a burden on others or decided that I should not need help. Everyone can use a reminder every now and again that we are human. We humans are hardwired to need some level of community. Plus, so often people are way more willing to help than we realize. 

The final tip is to give yourself some grace. In session, I ask my clients to think of the person they cheerlead the most — that person they just love with so much warmth and compassion. When thinking of that person, I ask them to give themselves the same grace they would give that person. The season may end up with a few lumps and bumps. So much of our lives is out of our hands. Be kind to yourself, and along with the first two tips, the holiday season can feel far more manageable.

As a healthcare professional, what are your biggest concerns surrounding the season and motherhood?

My biggest concern as a healthcare professional surrounding the holiday season is those individuals that feel overwhelmed and out of options. Whether it is a mother or another caregiver, being a caregiver during the holiday season holds its own weight. Adding the burdens of feeling overly responsible and ill-equipped to that weight, that is enough to make anyone buckle. Furthermore, there are mothers and caregivers not holding space to process their own feelings surrounding holidays and family. That is a big concern. At times, the holidays can be a trigger for grief and other intense feelings. Similar to the weight mentioned above, the energy used to suppress those feelings can also cause someone significant distress.

What are the signs that a mother may need to cut back on commitments during the holidays? 

Two signs that a mother or caregiver may need to cut back on commitments during the holidays are an increase in disruptive symptoms and a decrease in effective coping. Similar to change and transition, our bodies are put into action to manage. When the tasks at hand become too much, we can see an increase in our feelings of tiredness, irritability, anxiety, etc. This is in tandem to the second sign, seeing the tools we use be less effective. Our meditations, journaling, and exercising are no longer feeling like enough or we do not even have time to use them. Checking with ourselves is a good opportunity to say, am I doing too much?

Can you give me examples of when it’s time to say “no” and how to best deal with each situation?

At times, especially around the holidays, we may feel compelled to help everyone we can. As mentioned before, many of us enjoy helping by nature. Plus, the holidays bring many opportunities to help and for people to ask for help. When giving specific examples of when to say no, I feel compelled to take a moment to express that everyone has their own set of limits and boundaries. To assess ourselves, I ask my clients in session to process if they are considering themselves effectively in the equation.

When communicating “no” I find it best to be direct and respectful. Using passive language can cause confusion and conflict. Depending on the situation, a relatable anecdote is a nice touch. Some ways of saying no in those moments are:

I would love to [blank] at another time, I am not available this time around.

As much as I want to lend a hand, any few minutes I have left these days, I need for my brain to reboot or spend time with my family. I can’t help right now.

I appreciate you thinking of me. It’s not possible for me to do [blank]. However, I am able to do this instead.

Of course, we all know about that so-called mom guilt. If moms do decide to cut back on commitments, how do you recommend dealing with the mom guilt? Any de-stressing techniques in particular?

The dreaded mom guilt is real. To quiet that voice, a good recommendation is to practice new self-talk. When that voice says, “How dare you say no to creating a cardboard box play castle with your kids?” respond to yourself with, “I am so thankful that I listened to my needs”. Show your kids behaviors you hope they will adapt, including prioritizing themselves. Another recommendation is to carve out time to do activities that “fill your cup up.” Mindfulness meditations and yoga are certainly great choices. Others may find painting, going for a walk, talking to a close friend, or listening to music during a hot shower to be good ways to reset.

What are the red flags that you may need professional help? 

I am here to destigmatize the need for professional help. Therapy is a tool and a resource to be used proactively and reactively. Proactively, if you are someone who identifies the holidays as a tough season, seeking counseling is a fantastic means to support yourself through it. More commonly, people seek therapy when things start to feel like “too much.” Some red flags are changes in healthy habits (eating, sleeping, energy levels), fluctuating mood, increase in substance use, increase in physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea without medical cause, and even just a general feeling that you want to feel better. My experience both as a therapist and a person with a therapist, is that seeking professional help is a choice anyone can make when they feel they want some support managing life. Life can get hard sometimes, for everyone, especially around the holidays.

My last piece to add is to remember that moms and caregivers are just like everyone else. We have limits and need breaks too. My hope is that we spend less time comparing ourselves to others and more time cultivating joy for ourselves and the ones we love.

San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.

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Ellen Bullock