Address Holiday Stress by Choosing What’s Important To You

 ADHD Weekly, December 20, 2018

Next week is Christmas. The kids are home from school and you may have family visiting—or you’re planning a trip away. For many families, the next week represents one of the most stressful times of the year. This is made worse by holiday songs and commercials that tell us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD. Her research shows that 62 percent of adults feel their stress levels go up during the holiday season. It’s easy to believe that for families affected by ADHD the stress levels go even higher.

But what if it doesn’t have to be this way?

Holiday stress and your brain

Dr. Braaten says holiday stress is a different type of stress from the day-to-day worries we confront. It’s an acute reaction to an immediate threat—in this case, the responsibilities of creating a memorable holiday season. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is in overdrive, trying to organize and keep track of multiple responsibilities and a changing environment.

It is this part of the brain, though, that is in charge of executive function—our ability to organize, remember short-term goals, and keep track of time.

Meeting these seasonal demands requires constant updating or shifting cognitive strategies, which Dr. Braaten calls “shifting set.” Success depends on being able to shift set quickly, a skill that is hard when you have ADHD.

“The tough part,” says Dr. Braaten, “is that shifting set, which can be hard for us at any point in the year, is particularly pervasive at the holidays.”

Shifting your set and creating a better holiday

It doesn’t matter whether you began your holiday preparations in October or started this week: You can create a holiday that works for you and your family. Begin by reducing your family’s obligations and simplifying traditions. Removing the expectation of a “perfect” holiday scene and limiting the items on your to-do list can ease the way towards a more peaceful and enjoyable holiday for you.

Here are suggestions from ADHD experts on ways to create a better holiday:

Make what is important for you and your family a priority. You don’t have to run to four other houses on Christmas day if it will interfere with your family’s quiet morning. Likewise, if religious services on Christmas Eve are important to you, then it’s okay to say “no” to a friend’s party invitation. Whatever your decisions, be guided by what means the most to you, not what will make someone else happy.

Manage the family, both your immediate family and extended family members. Recognize how much stimulation you or your child can handle before ADHD symptoms get out of hand. Plan breaks to help manage symptoms or schedule your time to leave the situation before the symptoms cause a problem.

But also decide how much, if any, time you want to spend with extended family who are not supportive of you. Too often gatherings become opportunities for a relative to question your treatment or discipline choices. If polite but firm reminders that those choices are not up for discussion don’t work, you don’t have to continue the conversation.

Acknowledge your own feelings and reach out for help when you need it. These healthy habits can be hard for many people who have ADHD, because too often they’re told that their feelings are not valid. Reaching out for help is sometimes viewed as weakness or a failure. None of this is true! It’s okay to feel happy and sad, frustrated, overwhelmed, and overjoyed. Reach out for help with planning events, wrapping gifts, or any item on your to-do list. And equally, if you’re are feeling overwhelmed or sad for more than a few days, reaching out to a professional for support is important and healthy.

Set realities expectations for your holiday. You may wish your celebrations could be like a lovely Christmas card or an all-is-well-in-the-end movie, but holidays are not perfect. Confusion and a little bit of chaos are normal for families who have members with ADHD. Throw in holiday excitement, upended daily schedules, and add a few visiting family members and you can expect that things will not go as planned. Be okay with less-than-perfect and focus on making memories together.

Outsource or schedule for later. Have the dinner catered. Put any to-do items that can wait on the calendar. Now is not the time to get everything done by yourself, especially when your executive functioning is already overtasked. Even if you have the week off, there is enough to be accomplished without adding in extra things because you think you “have the time.”

The best present is to be present

Five years from now, you won’t wish that you spent more time cleaning the house. Take a holiday from the smaller details of life and instead eat the cookies, sing songs with the children, and take part in the moment.

“The holidays are just another time of year,” Dr. Braaten reminds us, “certainly something to mark, but not the end-all, be-all.”

More ways to make this your holiday:

Join the discussion: What’s your plan for a happy holiday?