Surviving the Holidays: The 6 F’s

By Kelli LaPage, MS, ATC, LAH, President of WellTrail, Inc. and Vice Chair of the FASNY Health and Wellness Committee

Mother taught you it is bad to use the “F word,” but the holiday is full of them: Family, Finances, Fantasy and Food can all bring incredible levels of stress to us during the holiday season.

By taking a few simple steps you can deter the negative side of these “F words” and turn them into a positive part of your holiday season.

Family

The old saying rings true most during the holidays. “You can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em.” Family can bring out the best and worst in each of us, and added to the hectic nature and high expectations of the holiday season, those little family issues can seem larger and significant family issues can seem hard to avoid. If your family gatherings are without friction, count your blessings. But, if there tends to be a relative meltdown at your holiday gathering every year, here are a few tips to help:

• Set clear expectations. Holidays are difficult because a number of different people with different expectations come together, not always with the same goal in mind. Set the stage well before the holidays. Set boundaries for your time. Provide a clear schedule for when you are available for family events and when you are not. If you have multiple families to visit, set a designated time limit for each group. If plans involve travel, a yearly schedule may be in order so distant relatives know if you will not be there this year and it will be their turn next time.

• “No” is not a bad word. It is OK to say “no”. If you (and your family) are feeling pulled in 10 different directions, are overwhelmed and tired, you will not enjoy the time you have to spend with each other. If you cannot commit to an event or gathering, can’t make 10 dozen cookies for the office party tomorrow or sew costumes for the school Christmas play … clearly state that you are not able to. If you really struggle saying, or sticking by your “no”, proactively follow up your “no” with what you will do. People respond much better to a “no” followed by a positive, than a “no” followed by excuses (no matter how valid).

• Avoid conflict. If you know that Uncle Ned always starts a fight after his third glass of wine, cut off the wine for your guests at the second glass and offer coffee or tea. If you know bringing up the last round of elections will start World War III, avoid the conversation and directly divert it should it start. Remember, you are an adult. Even if you are in the presence of “elder” relatives, you are allowed to politely, but firmly, keep the peace if they are unable to do so themselves.

If you know two or more individuals simply cannot be on good behavior in each other’s presence, spend separate time with them. As hard as we try, we cannot force others to reconcile and get along.

Finance

Perhaps this year, even more than most, finances are a real source of stress during the holidays. Whether the stress is from feeling you cannot afford the holiday you want, or whether it comes from overextending yourself financially – there are several ways you can minimize the effects during the holidays:

• Budget. It seems obvious, but many of us enter into the biggest spending season of the year without a budget in place. Set spending limits and stick to them. Make a list and check it twice. Who can you speak with about not exchanging presents? You will find most people these days are more than happy to simply spend time together, without the added stress of the present exchange. At large events, do a name draw instead of buying for everyone. Or make a kids-only rule where only gifts are bought for the children. And don’t forget DIY options for gifting. Anything made with your hands and love is far more valuable than something bought online or in a catalog.

• Free is great. Many things in life are free – even during the holidays. Search around for holiday events for your family to enjoy, or make your own fun decorating your tree, having a snowball fight or building a snowman.

• Use cash. Studies have shown that we are less likely to overspend and stick to our budgets when using cash. Credit cards sometimes feel like free money, but the consequences will continue to be felt long after the holiday cheer has passed.

If you do over-extend, don’t bury your head in the sand. Seek professional help. Consumer credit counseling, your EAP or even a local financial advisor can all help you manage your holiday debt. They can help you set a plan not only for next holiday season, but for the entire new year.

Fantasy

The holidays are full of unrealistic expectations. Some of them stem from the holiday stories we know so well – where visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. Others come from childhood memories, some real and some enhanced. And still others come from a need to create the “perfect” holiday for our loved ones. Whatever the cause, there is nothing more dangerous during the holidays than unrealistic expectations. There is  no such thing as a perfect holiday. The little imperfections are what are so endearing about being with loved ones.

This holiday, make a list of what is truly important to you. Ask members in your household to make a list as well to share and compare. And as you plan and stress over little details, ask whether those details will affect what is important. Remember to sit back and enjoy the holidays for what they are. Let go of traditions that no longer fit your life and create new and lasting traditions that you and your loved ones can cherish for years to come.

Food

Whether you are at the office, the mall or family gatherings, you will be bombarded with unhealthy food choices – and lots of them. Probably designed by our ancestors as their way to “manage” their holiday stress, holiday foods tend to be comfort foods, laden with extra sugar, trans fat and few redeeming nutritional qualities. While a glass of eggnog with the neighbors or an occasional sugar cookie can be a healthy part of your holiday season, it is important to set clear boundaries for your nutritional intake. Arm yourself to resist temptation, both from the foods themselves and from those trying to force them on you in the name of holiday cheer.

• Be prepared. Do not go on a shopping trip or to any holiday event on an empty stomach. If only hor d’oeuvres will be served, have a small healthy mini-meal with lots of water, veggies, lean protein and a healthy fat. If you are going somewhere where a meal will be served, having a mini-meal with this balance will also help keep your choices, and your portions, in check if temptations arise.

• Stay hydrated. While many of us will enjoy a hot toddy this time of year, a glass of wine or some holiday punch, it is important to balance any caloric, caffeinated or alcoholic drink with an equal portion of water. This will help maintain your hydration, allowing your body to better metabolize the foods and beverages you are eating. It will also help you feel more full, hopefully preventing overeating.

• Aim for balance. Whether you are at the buffet table or a sitdown meal, remembering to maintain a balance in your fuel will help prevent overloading on sugar or processed foods.

A simple rule to remember is whatever plate you are filling – half is vegetables (non-starchy) and half is your protein and healthy fat. Knowing it is the holidays with lots of delicious options you wouldn’t normally have, allow up to a quarter of your meal to be in the form of starchy or sugary options (like breads, dessert, etc.).

• Wait at least 10 minutes and have one glass of water before having seconds. Then repeat the rule above.

Fitness

The importance of staying active during the stress of the holidays cannot be understated. Not only does physical activity help balance stress hormones, it helps maintain a positive attitude.

It will certainly help counter the additional calories that will likely be added to your daily fuel during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. But “fitness” does not have to be spending two hours at the gym or going for a five-mile run.

There are lots of fun ways to build activity into the routine and obligations you already are committed too during the holidays.

Forgiveness

Above all else, practice forgiveness during this season. No matter how well you plan, no matter how much willpower you have, the likelihood is that something (or things) is going to go off the rails. You may eat or drink more than you planned at a party, you may miss your planned trips to the gym for a week, you may lose your cool and go off on a relative over their political lecture at the dinner table.

Listen – you are human. We all are. And part of the beauty of being human is the ability to forgive. Forgive others, but also be generous with forgiveness of yourself. If you do something you wish you hadn’t (or didn’t do something you wish you had) move on and continue to make the choices that are right for you moving forward. Do not let one slip-up or overindulgence define who you are or the quality of your holiday.

So eat, drink, be merry – and may your holidays surround you with love.