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Healthy Strategies for Holiday Stress

Agawam counselors offer tips to help you through the season

For many, the holidays are a time of tremendous joy, getting together with family and friends. However, for some the holidays can be a time of anxiety and stress. Managing these emotions can be difficult, but there are healthy ways to cope with less-than-ideal situations.

Creating positive boundaries around attending holiday events can go a long way toward making the holidays less stressful. “Give yourself permission not to attend a gathering if someone who disrupts your equilibrium will be there,” says Sarah Gordon, LICSW and outpatient therapist at Agawam Counseling Center.

Although attending may be challenging, some may choose to do so because they want to see someone who will be there, or to continue with their traditions and celebrations despite those challenges. “Boundaries are about your behavior, what you will or will not do,” explains Sarah. She suggests being clear with other people about what will not be tolerated. “For instance, say ‘If you bring up a specific event or a touchy topic, I will leave.’”

If the struggle comes from relatives who offer parenting advice, Sarah suggests acknowledging that they’re trying to help, but being clear that it’s not needed. She recommends saying, “I am focused on learning to parent in the way that I feel is best for my children and family. If I want advice, I know I can go to you. Thank you for being available to me.”

If family and friends don’t respond well to these boundaries, then Sarah suggests some exercises that can help people get through the event. “You can try taking a moment in a quiet room or stepping outside and breathing in for six counts and exhaling for eight counts,” she explains. “You can also try redirecting your focus onto the television, people you are excited to speak with, helping with the meal, interacting with the children, or changing the topic of conversation.”

Grief can add another layer of stress to already trying times. Sandi Sherry-Pitzer, a mental health clinician and licensed social worker at Agawam Counseling Center, recommends an alternative event for those experiencing loss and who may not feel like celebrating.

“December 21 is typically the day many Christian churches offer a low-key, peaceful evening service known as Blue Christmas,” explains Sandi. “People may share their thoughts and feelings, their grief or stress, in the company of others who are also feeling alone or misunderstood.” Several area churches offer this service, including Feeding Hills Congregational Church.

Sarah strongly discourages using alcohol to cope because it often exacerbates a stressful situation. For those with access to a therapist, discussing these upcoming events with them to get personalized recommendations is important.

“Because every situation and every individual is unique, if you have access to a therapist or trusted mentor, it might be helpful to develop a plan with their support that accounts for the factors that your family and friends bring to the holiday table,” explains Sarah.

Learn more about Baystate Health Network’s services at bhninc.org or 413.301.9355.

“If you have access to a therapist or trusted mentor, it can be helpful to develop a plan with them that accounts for the factors that your family and friends bring to the holiday table.”

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