A Calmer Holiday Season

 ADHD Weekly November 8, 2018

It sometimes feels like the holidays of the past were a quiet time for families to be together, maybe exchange a few small gifts, and share a nice meal. Today it seems the last two months of the year are a nonstop frenzy of shopping, sending holiday cards, going to office parties, welcoming houseguests, and preparing elaborate meals.

“It’s a busy, stressful time for anyone,” says Nikki Kinzer, a certified ADHD coach. “When you have ADHD, it makes it even that much harder. There are more distractions, more opportunities to forget things. And when people with ADHD are stressed and overwhelmed, they tend to shut down.”

Plan ahead for the holidays

You probably already have an idea how the holiday season will affect you. It could be old habits of putting things off till the last minute or the stress of being with extended family.

“Take steps now to game plan how to handle Thanksgiving or other holiday get-togethers,” says J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program and associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ramsay is also a member of CHADD’s professional advisory board.

It’s worth reflecting on the day itself, but you’ll also want to keep in mind the bigger picture, he says. How are you going to manage your gift giving, including budgeting and shopping? If you’re expecting houseguests, what will you need to do to prepare for them? Will you be traveling to visit family? Take into account changes to your daily schedule, and if you have children, keep in mind that they’ll be home on vacation. Think about how you might do things differently this season.

Prioritize your time

If your calendar shows three parties in one week, you might need to choose among them which to attend. Only you will know which are most important for you or your family. If you do have to turn down an invitation, figure out different ways to get together with those people—you might enjoy the quieter time together. It will also free up space in your schedule, says Ms. Kinzer, noting that having transition time between activities is especially important to people with ADHD.

Rethink nonparty commitments this season, too. It’s nice to be involved, but what happens when you realize you’ve agreed to be in charge of your child’s classroom party, offered to wrap presents at a fundraiser, told your mother you would take her shopping, and invited friends to dinner, all within a day or two?

“You may have to check in with yourself and think, ‘What are my top values? What is most important to me? What are the things that I really enjoy doing, and what are the things that I’m doing out of obligation and can let go of?’” says Ms. Kinzer. “Only commit to the things that truly mean something to you and your family. Because if you’re saying yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. And you want to make sure that you’re not saying no to something that really matters versus saying yes to something you feel guilty about.”

That may mean, for example, letting go of the idea that you have to send a Christmas card to everyone in your address book. As with everything else, it’s about what matters most to you at this time of year.

“If it makes your life better and it takes a little bit of pressure off your holiday season, then I say go for it,” says Ms. Kinzer. “Don’t make it a ‘must-do’ or a ‘have-to,’ because then you take the joy out of it.”

Family dynamics

Families can be challenging around the holidays. People often find that being with their siblings and parents triggers behaviors that make them feel like they’re teenagers again. That’s especially true for people with ADHD, who may feel they are constantly being judged or criticized. With other family members, political or personal discussions around the holiday dinner table can be upsetting, especially right after an election. If that’s the case, try to stay out of the conversation, or be honest and say you’d rather not discuss the topic. But in all situations, Ms. Kinzer suggests paying attention to how your body feels. Notice if your shoulders get tight, your jaw clenched, your face is feeling hot—all signs of stress.

“If you’re starting to feel that way, that’s a pretty good indication that you may say something you will regret later,” she says. “So if you can pause and wait a couple of seconds before you say anything, you decrease the chances of saying something you may regret. It’s not a perfect science, but identify how you’re feeling and know your cues. And remember that the best thing to do is leave the room and take nice, deep, long breaths and get yourself re-centered.”

The importance of self-care

Deep breaths can help even when you’re feeling fine, just making your way through the season. You might try meditation—it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just sitting quietly for a few minutes, taking some good deep breaths. And if you’ve got a regular exercise routine, keep at it.

“The best thing you can do is stay on track with your self-care routines or what you already have in place. And if you don’t have anything in place, this is a great time to set one up,” says Ms. Kinzer.

Making time for yourself—either in an exercise routine, quiet time to read or journal, or time to take care of a task you enjoy uninterrupted—can make a difference in how your handle the holiday season. It may feel like one more item on your to-do list, but it will make a huge difference in how you feel physically and mentally.

And—very importantly—make getting enough sleep a priority for your health and productivity.

“We all know that if we don’t get enough sleep we’re kind of cranky,” Ms. Kinzer says. “Well, double that with all of the stress that the holidays can bring. Your ADHD is going to be harder to manage. The more sleep you have, the better.”

Take the holiday season slowly, making time for yourself and your family. You’ll be glad that you did.

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Join the discussion: What’s your favorite holiday tradition?