Choose What’s Important to You to Reduce Holiday Stress

 ADHD Weekly, December 7, 2023

December brings holidays and traditions meant to inspire and uplift us during the darkest month of the year. Commercials push us to spend money on gifts, and TV shows portray happy families and stories that may not reflect the experiences of ordinary people. For many families, this represents one of the most stressful times of the year.

“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD. Her research shows the majority of adults feel their stress levels rise during the holiday season. It’s easy to believe that for families affected by ADHD the stress levels rise 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 functioning—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 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 toward a more peaceful and enjoyable season 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 if it interferes with your family’s own celebration. If religious services 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 members who are not supportive. 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 with ADHD because they’re often told 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 if you feel overwhelmed or sad for more than a few days, reaching out to a professional for support is important and healthy.

Set realistic expectations for your holiday. You may wish your celebrations could be like a lovely card or movie, but holidays are not perfect. Confusion and a little chaos are normal for families affected by ADHD. Throw in holiday excitement, upended daily schedules, and add a few visitors 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 tasks 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?