Managing holiday stress

by Barbara Lewis
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The holidays can be a very stressful time for a lot of people. We often have to deal with family that we only see once a year because they cause us so much stress. This time of year is filled with tradition and when you live far from your home country trying to keep some semblance of those traditions can cause all kinds of undue stress especially when children are involved and you want to make the holidays as ‘normal’ as possible. So what are some sure fire techniques to get through the holiday season with the least amount of stress possible.

According to the renowned Mayo clinic, they have ten things they believe will help stave off stress and depression during the holidays: acknowledge your feelings, be realistic, reach out, set aside differences, stick to a budget, plan ahead, learn to say no, don’t abandon healthy habits, take a breather, and finally seek professional help if you need it. You can find more explanation on each of these points at under stress management for the holidays. WebMD also has some advice on this topic that differs slightly: give something personal, know your spending limits, get organised, share tasks, take breaks from group activities, keep regular exercise schedules, try to get enough sleep, limit your alcohol, also be realistic and learn to say no. suggests to make sure to take time for yourself, pick your battles and keep it simple. In a Forbes article on holiday stress a unique notion mentioned was realising your limitations. All of these sites have great ideas about managing stress but I think that the stress that we face as expats during the holiday season is amped up even more so and has some complexities that these suggestions just don’t address that over the last 25 years of living and dealing with the holiday season in a variety of different countries I have come to understand pretty well.

I do want to make a disclaimer here: I am by no means stress free during the holidays but in recent years it has become increasingly important to try to minimise it as much as possible because I have a chronic illness that gets much worse as my stress levels increase. My family is spread out around the world but it is very important to us that the immediate family spends at least a few days of the holiday season together. So my husband and I either travel to them or they travel tous. Of course travelling is likely part of most family ‘s holiday time ours is just further and for many more hours. Some of the lessons I have learned over the years about how to keep the stress levels at a manageable level.


Prioritise should be number one. If you are travelling, make sure that when you get to where you are going that you aren’t pulled in a million different directions especially if you are surrounded by extended family. I am not sure why but often the people who have travelled across the world to visit end up still making their way around to see all the various relatives; especially if you have small children try to have a base and have people come see you.

They will if they want to and only travel to visit those that it is really important to do so. Make a list with your immediate family of the most important things to do and people to see and plan everything else around these events and visits with people. Don’t be dissuaded by kindly aunts who just want an hour or two of your time or friends who you haven’t seen in 5 or 10 years who want to meet for a drink. These types of things can blow gapping holes into well laid plans and drain you of the very energy that you need to make it through the holidays. Also a priority when you are travelling is to get enough rest and exercise and for people to honour that you will be jet lagged for a period of time.

Give yourself a break and don’t let yourself get run down by lack of rest. Be realistic as some of the sites have said about what you can and can’t manage and don’t try to squeeze in too many things. My family loves to snow ski and often we have travelled from a very hot place to Canada during the holidays. My husband would like for us to almost immediately get off the plane and then start driving to a ski destination. I hated this because I just found it too exhausting and it took many years before I made sure that my voice was heard and we took a couple days where we landed before we drove up to the mountains to ski. This one small change took all the stress out of the situation for me.

If you are remaining where you are prioritising takes on a bit different of a look but you still need to do it to keep yourself sane and under tolerable amounts of stress. Now you have to make sure that your immediate family takes first priority and plan holiday events and work around them and their needs. This usually takes a family meeting of some kind depending on the age of the family members and a dose of reality as to which family traditions are possible to continue with and which have to be let go of.

It is also important that everyone in the family learn to value their time wiselyand prioritise it, to ensure that you have time to participate in the events and situations that create meaning for you instead of hurrying from one to another. In Bangkok that usually means spending lots of time in a car travelling in traffic so you want to make sure that it is time well spent.

Being realistic is especially important in all kinds of ways for expats during the holidays. Often we live in lands where our holidays are not recognised sometimes even despised. It can make it hard to get into the holiday spirit. Ironically if you have children in school this is often a time of great celebration in the schools with all kinds of notable events to try tobring on the ‘holiday spirit’. If you are in one of those situations where you are just not feeling it give yourself a break. This is one way you can reduce your stress. Go along with the events etc. but just don’t expect something from yourself you can’t give.

It is also important to be realistic when you are travelling back as to what you can and can’t accomplish as far as visiting family and friends and attending social gatherings. Often when we travel home we get asked to attend so many things and we are pull in so many directions that it is extremely hard to know what to do so it is imperative that you don’t over book yourself and you know when to say “NO”. This can be one of the hardest things to do especially with family that you might not have seen in several months or years. Learning to say ‘no’ will save you so much stress and keep you grounded and realistic.It is also important to be realistic when you stay in country.

Many of the traditions that you normally have might not be possible here in Thailand or some other country that you live. We are fortunate in Thailand that although Christmas is a nationally held holiday here there is still all kinds of evidence of it around commercially so it is easier to get into the holiday spirit. It is still so necessary to be realistic about your time however because everything for the holidays starts very early here because it is based on the schools schedules.

Once the schools break up which is the middle of December many people leave or travel, so any holiday events are held before this making the end of November and beginning of December a very busy time. Conversely, it can seem very quiet once the school rush has finished and be a bit of a let down. If you are staying in Bangkok with your children you want to make sure that you plan some things for you to do to ensure you don’t feel the stress and burden of bored children during the holiday season.

All of this of course takes planning which is one way to keep the stress to a minimum whether you are travelling or not. The more you can plan and do ahead of time the more organised and at ease you will feel during those holidays. It will build the element of control that we all need not to feel stressed. One of the suggestions from the health sites was to divide up thetasks and I think this is brilliant. It will definitely help divide up the stress. If you are worried about things getting done make sure you plan appropriately and give the correct tasks to the correct people. Also try and set timelines that get things done well and truly early.

My final suggestion for keeping stress managed during holidays is take time for yourself in whatever form that my take. If you get the chance do something that truly brings you joy from the centre of your being with no effort on your part. I will give you my example: I adore watching my dogs wrestle and play together. It is so funny and my laughter bubbles up from my inner being when they chase each other around the coffee table. If I want true stress relief I only need to watch them for five minutes. There are many other things though as well: taking a walk by myself, deep water running and listening to a podcast or meditating for 15-30 minutes. Whatever can give you some time to think and be alone take that time it will save you so much stress in the long run.

Most of what I have mentioned is just common sense and things most expats know but I think we all need to be reminded of it now and again.

Barbara Lewis is a regular contributor for EL. She is a teacher at Rose Marie Academy in Nichada Thani we wish her well and hope that she will keep writing for us!

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