Putting the "Me" back in "Merry" during stressful holiday season

Gloria Hafemeister
As busy holidays approach take time to enjoy the view from your own window.

MADISON – Holidays are stressful times for many people but farm families often find them even more stressful due to a lack of money or an excessive workload that provides little time to enjoy the holidays with family and friends. While we’re told it’s the most wonderful time of the year, unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel that way.

With that in mind, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension’s Heart of the Farm Women in Agriculture’s recent coffee chat featured advice from three Human Development and Relationship Educators with UW-Madison Division of Extension who shared ideas for not only coping, but also relaxing and enjoying the holiday season.

Many of the 50 participants in the online conference also shared ways they are dealing with holiday stresses.

Lori Zierl led the discussion by encouraging participants to mention the things that bring joy to them. She  also asked them to identify the stressors.

This year some families are finding the holidays even more stressful due to socializing limitations from the threat of COVID 19. But Zierl points out that this is something we cannot change and it is important to look at the things we can change.

“In reality one of the biggest stressors is expecting too much of ourselves,” she said. “Make a priority list. Take things off the list that don’t really need to be done. Communicate your expectations with others and remember people can’t read your mind. If you expect them to help with something you need to let them know.”

She also suggests thinking about each activity and whether it is something of value and worth the time and resources that are put into it. Does the activity bring joy?

Decorating, baking, gift giving all put stress on women during the holiday season.  A recent virtual workshop provided ideas for putting the “Me’ in “Merry” during this holiday season.

Nancy Vance tackled the financial part of the stress issue, pointing out that issues with COVID have led to more online spending and that can be risky because the items are charged.

“Research shows most people this year plan to spend more money online – even going into debt – buying gifts,” she said. “Parents feel pressure to overspend on their kids because they feel sorry for what they have gone through with changes in their school situations and social activities during this COVID year.”

She says overspending can take away the true meaning of the holidays.

“Make a budget and check it twice," she said. "Plan how much you spend on each person. Don’t wait until the last minute to shop. Take time to do price comparisons.”

Vance says research has shown that what we remember in years to come is not the gift we received but the experience attached to it.

For those who do not believe that she suggested asking older children or adults what they most remember about Christmas when they were little. It will not likely be that big gift they received but instead the time they spent with family or friends.

Vance also suggested donating something to a worthwhile organization in honor of the person you want to buy for.

“Finally, if you’re stressed out about sending all those Christmas cards, don’t do it. Send an e-card or just skip a year,” she said.

Jackie Carattini admits the idea of “thinking positive” is easier said than done, especially during this stressful 2020 year.

But she recommends looking for the silver lining in every day.

She engaged the conference participants, encouraging them to mention a positive thing they noticed recently. Those responding listed things like the beauty of the fall leaves, the good weather that allowed harvest season to go well, getting to know neighbors better in a time when they could not travel elsewhere.

She also urged participants to think about self care.

“Schedule a time of the day each day just for you. Write it on your calendar so you actually do it. Let everyone know this is important to you. Maybe even reward yourself for doing it,” Carattini said.

She suggested simple acts such as sitting for a while alone enjoying a cup of coffee, exercising, going on a daily walk or spending time on a hobby or reading a good book.  It's important to behold the perspective that these activities are not time wasted but time well spent because they reduces stress and stress can lead to health issues or “spinning your wheels” that in the long run ends up taking more time away.

She further recommends, “While you are sipping your coffee in the morning think of three things you are thankful for.”

Carattini shared that her family keeps a blessing jar. Each day family members put in a slip of paper mentioning a particular blessing. When things are depressing they open the jar and pull out the pieces of paper as a reminder of the good things.

Things like mindfully eating and drinking (enjoying the flavor rather than wolfing it down), deep breathing, and thinking about happy memories by going through photo albums are all ways to reduce stress without taking a lot of time away from a busy schedule, she said.

Several participants voiced concerns about how to support caregivers during the holidays. 

Carattini suggested asking a family member or someone else to come in for an hour or two in order to give a needed break.

"There are also services available to do this," she said. "Don’t think you need to do it all the time alone."

“Many of us who are caregivers for a family member feel we are the only one who can do it right.  It is important to let someone (family or a professional) help,” Zierl added.

She points out that if a caregiver gets burned out or suffers from stress the person who is in her care will also suffer.