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News » Local News

Stressed for the Holidays

Local therapists discuss dealing with family, expectations and other challenging holiday situations

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For some, the holidays are a time of joy, wonderment and time-worn traditions. For most, however, the holidays are a time of financial distress, deep disappointment and dangerously heavy drinking patterns, ("just one more spiked eggnog, it's fine").

There's no such thing as the perfect holida- oh, wait. There actually really isn't. - PIXABAY
  • Pixabay
  • There's no such thing as the perfect holida- oh, wait. There actually really isn't.

A Healthline survey conducted in 2015 found that 62 percent of people experienced "very elevated" stress levels around the holidays. A study funded by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council found that 41 percent of Americans believe they work too hard to achieve the "holiday ideal."

Stress levels skyrocket for a number of reasons, including perfectionism, finances, unmet expectations and—you guessed it, family. 

Three local licensed family therapists offered insight into coping with crippling, holiday-related stress. 

Andie DeSha, a licensed professional counselor, suggested that the "West side Bend sense of perfection" contributes largely to holiday stress.

"We see the family across the street, and we want to match them," Desha explained. "We're inundated with information around this time of year. What we 'should' be buying, how we 'should' be celebrating. It's easy to come down with a case of the 'shoulds.'" 

DeSha emphasized that the holidays look different for everyone.

"Ask yourself, 'What are our goals? What are our values?' Of course, you won't be able to ask yourself these questions unless you slow down. Take a look at your family traditions; are these traditions stressful?" She shared that her family created their own holiday tradition when they realized how much stress went into gift-giving. "Now, we go for the weirdest gifts—the weirdest things we can find. We just shop at Goodwill. There are still presents under the tree, but there's no pressure. It's so much fun." She emphasized the benefits of using humor as a stress-diffuser. 

Shannon Kearney, a local marriage and family therapist, agreed that comparison is the thief of joy. "I have clients coming in all the time and saying things like, 'I hate the commercialism of Christmas,'" she said. "People deal with the expectation that they'll have to spend a lot of money on presents. They see the family down the street, and think they have to match them." Rather than compare, both therapists suggested creating special, stress-free family traditions involving simplicity, a lack of rigidity and increased mindfulness.

Shannon Kearney, local marriage and family therapist. - KELLIANNE JORDAN
  • Kellianne Jordan
  • Shannon Kearney, local marriage and family therapist.

"If you go look at the lights, actually look at the lights!" said DeSha. "Don't just do things to check off the box."

One of the biggest contributors to stress is family. "Old relationships that have their own set of dynamics might be revisited, and the same things that triggered us as children can trigger us as adults," said Kearney. "Boundary setting is crucial." 

Despite local strides toward the destigmatizing of mental health, seeking therapy around the holidays is often perceived as taboo. Kearney stressed that asking for extra support around this time isn't just acceptable, it's often essential. Kearney also recommends people recognize that plans are not set in stone.

"Give yourself an out," she suggested. "Come up with a game plan. If you're going somewhere that you might not want to be for long, talk to your spouse and make sure you're both on the same page. If you say, 'Hey, I'm feeling pretty tired, I think I'm ready to head home,' make sure those needs—what that means—has been communicated beforehand."

Marriage and family therapist Joella Long of Cascadia Family Therapy noted another reason returning home can be tricky. "Sometimes, family members and longtime friends expect us to fit into a past box, they expect us to be the person we used to be. This doesn't allow for growth. Stay aware. Ask yourself, 'Am I being the present me or the past me?'"

Marriage and family therapist Joella Long of Cascadia Family Therapy. - YVETTE SEILE
  • Yvette Seile
  • Marriage and family therapist Joella Long of Cascadia Family Therapy.

The holidays aren't just stressful for adults, the therapists said. "One of the biggest problems I see is the transference of our stress to our kids," DeSha said. "We've got to model self-care... and I know that's a buzzword, 'self-care'... What I mean is, we've got to slow down and keep things in perspective. We have to take a look at ourselves and how we're handling things."

She noted that words like "busy" and "stressed" have also become buzzwords. "People wear their stress like a badge of honor, almost like it's something to be proud of." 

"Children and teenagers in particular crave family connection this time of year," DeSha explained. "Slowing down and being present with one another is so important."

"This isn't a happy time of year for everybody," added Kearney. "This can be a hard time of year for veterans; it can bring up memories of being overseas. It can be a difficult time for older people who have had family members pass away, or for people who didn't have happy childhoods." DeSha mentioned Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the impact that shorter days can have on mood. Slowing down not only helps alleviate stress, it helps us tune into the needs of those around us. "Lots of people are struggling, and we're too stressed or busy to notice," she said.

Ignoring spiked stress levels can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, Long explained. "Collectively, alcohol consumption increases over the holidays. Even a drink or two makes an impact on emotional maturity, reactivity, awareness and patience. It can also make people who are difficult to be around be even more difficult to handle."

The fix? "Be mindful. If you do drink, try to at least alternate between alcohol and water."

DeSha added, "Rather than reach for that second glass of wine, take a walk outside."

Overall, "expectation" was the word each therapist mentioned the most. 

"Sit down and think through expectations," said Long. "Make sure you communicate these expectations. Do you want your mom's special mashed potatoes at dinner? Let her know in advance. Are you focusing on having a peaceful holiday? Let others know how they may play a role in making that happen." 

About The Author

Cayla Clark

Cayla graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting, soon after realizing that playwriting is not a viable career option. Fortunately, this led her to journalism, and she is thrilled to be part of such a unique and fun-loving team. Upcoming local events? Send them her way!

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