Sunday, October 24, 2021

Rethinking Christmas Holiday Stress Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Photo by Dr. Rich Blonna

One way to understand why the Christmas – New Years Holiday period is so stressful is to take an ACT-based approach to rethink it. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a values-based approach to dealing with mental distress, is the perfect framework for understanding holiday stress because stress often occurs when two or more strongly held values conflict with each other.   

Nowhere is this more evident than during the Christmas holiday season that stretches through New Year’s Day. This period seems to bring out the best and worst in others and ourselves because they are fraught with values conflicts. 

People who celebrate the holidays with family and friends generally do so because they value these relationships and want to spend time with loved ones. One way to characterize this is to look at relationships with family and friends as core values. 

Other values associated with the holidays are related to things such as sharing meals and exchanging gifts. These values could be characterized as secondary or satellite values. They are important, but less important than actually spending time with loved ones. 

The media portrays the holiday season as a blissful time when families and friends gather around a large table in a spacious dining room in an opulent colonial home with a roaring fireplace. On the table sits a massive roast turkey and everyone is all dressed up and smiling as the man of the house (dad or grandpa) carves the turkey with precision. Afterward, everyone gathers around the perfectly decorated Christmas tree and exchanges gifts and pleasantries. 

Nice image unless of course you are a vegetarian, live in an apartment with dining space for four at best, had an abusive father or grandfather, are afraid of roaring fires, don’t like to get dressed up and would prefer to go to a local restaurant for a holiday dinner that someone else prepares. 

Because of conflicts like this, coming together with family and friends at the holidays conjures up all sorts of troubling thoughts and painful emotions related to gifting, food, personal appearance, budgets, travel, living arrangements, family dynamics and a host of other issues. 

Three key elements of taking an ACT-based approach to rethinking holiday stress are clarifying your values, practicing acceptance, and being willing to take action despite your troubling thoughts and painful emotions. 

  1. Clarifying your holiday values helps you develop values-based goals for the season. These will serve as a road map for navigating the season without being overly stressed.                                                                                                                                                         
  2. Practicing acceptance involves understanding that spending time with family and friends over the holidays will involve values conflicts that will trigger troubling thoughts and painful emotions. 
  3. Practicing willingness means that you are willing and able to co-exist with your painful emotions and troubling thoughts and still take action (spend time with family and friends) that is consistent with your core values. 

In my next column, my Stress Busters Tip will show you how to combine these three key elements into a simple but effective strategy to manage your holiday stress.   

Until then remember to Stress Less and Live More. 

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