Its Christmas and you are expected to spend it with extended family, some of whom you really don’t like. You remember Christmases past where quarrelling and disagreements escalated or words unspoken left a pall of tension in the room. Perhaps unresolved family history hangs like murky smog enveloping everyone. You are dreading the time spent with relatives – your own and those of your spouse. But you see it as a duty, an obligation, something you have to do to keep peace in the family.
We can’t change in-laws or family members. They are who they are and we are who we are. But we can reduce the tension and apprehension of times together. And perhaps in the process, we might find some pleasant surprises. Here are some tips that might help.
Check your attitude
Attitudes reflect our personal view of how we think the world should and ought to operate. So, before leaving home to attend family functions, check your attitude. We reveal what we think of others not only by the words we use but by our physical posture. When our attitude suggests superiority, others see it as a challenge – a threat to be defended.
Respect your differences
While it sounds old and trite, accepting our differences allows us to respect another without having to agree with ideology or beliefs. Acceptance goes a long way in opening the door to understanding.
Be nice – make it a decision
We are often nicer to strangers than we are to members of our own family. Being nice to people even if they are not nice to us is a personal decision based on principles we have chosen to live by. It doesn’t depend on another being nice first. Set aside old grievances.
Look beyond behaviors
Often people are grumpy or unpleasant because they don’t feel appreciated or believe anyone cares. Like a lot of behaviors, being grumpy or prickly can become a habit. Everyone has a history that has shaped and molded them. We are seldom privy to the background influences that are now acted out on the stage of life. Make a decision to look at the world from another’s perspective. God loves each of us – even those we think are despicable and not nice. We can accept people without accepting bad behavior. You can extend grace to individuals as God extends grace to us. Set personal feelings aside and focus on the other. Avoid contentious discussions that trigger anger or defensiveness.
“For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.
Christmas is a time to enjoy each other’s company. God loves you – He loves me – He loves the members of your family. Hate perpetuates destructive behavior. Love heals, but also demands a sacrifice of setting self aside long enough to tune into others.
When money is tight, the holiday season can seem bleak and depressive. While budgets may have been stretched in the past, this year it is hovering on zero. The temptation to use credit cards already maxed out is great.
It has been reported that every year people overspend at Christmas resulting in taking half of the following year to pay off the debt. We have been conditioned to spend now and pay later. However, to continue to spend when we may or may not have a job next year, or when our budgets really can’t handle it, is playing a dangerous game with reality.
It is difficult to resist the temptation of spontaneous spending. Stores encourage spending by creating moods with lights, music and pleasant smells. It is easy to get lulled into spending more than you can afford because after all, aren’t we buying things for our loved ones? However, while it may make you feel good at the moment to spend more than you have, like drinking in excess, the hangover isn’t very pleasant.
I believe we can find a blessing or something positive in each and every situation. Perhaps the blessing hidden in our financial downturn is the opportunity to focus on what Christmas is all about – the birth of a Savior. Perhaps this year new traditions can be established for our family.
Talk to your kids about Christmas
Sit down with your children and talk about how this Christmas will be special because as a family you will be focusing on others rather than buying expensive gifts. Explain that limited funds will not keep you from having a wonderful Christmas. Together plan ways you can reach out to someone in need; offer assistance to an elderly person or bake some cookies for a stressed neighbor. Tell them how much their homemade cards and messages of love mean to you. Indicate that this year, there may be fewer gifts but they will be given out of love rather than meeting the demands of an “I want” list. Give them a gift of “time” that they can redeem throughout the next year. Perhaps it can be in the form of a coupon book or predetermined with their special interests in mind.
Years ago there were many lean years when raising my family. One year I made stuffed animals for each of my kids. That year my daughter more than anything else wanted a beautiful ballerina doll. It was outside our budget but her grandmother was able to purchase it for her. She was so thrilled when she opened her present that she cried. Yet, she reflected to her daughter and me that it had not given her all the hours of pleasure she had envisioned and it soon ended in the back of her closet. Instead, the stuffed toy became a treasured gift that was kept long after it had become worn and raggedy.
What does Christmas mean to you and why?
Check your own expectations. Which presents received in the past have given you the long term anticipated joy and happiness you thought they would? Which ones did not? What made the difference?
Christmas is more than money spent on Christmas gifts. It is about what we value and love. We give gifts because God gave us the gift of His Son. Attached to that gift was love and sacrifice.
We resist change because we are comfortable in well established habits – whether good or bad. We know what to expect. Yet, without change, life would be dull and boring. However, we want to be in control of what is changed.
But often, we are not in control of making those decisions. A divorce and a family breaking up, downsizing due to financial concerns, loss of a job, unexpected death or health issues drastically changes life as usual. And with those changes comes the stress of starting over and creating a new reality we do not like or want.
During the holiday season, drastic and unpleasant changes make it difficult to find anything to celebrate or be happy about. Our lives are stressed by the loss, picking up the pieces while we try to survive.
Change takes time and energy. It requires letting go of what was and turning our focus on what we can do. What is required to survive? How can we feel better while adjusting? What can we do to find some joy in the holiday season? Here are some suggestions that might help:
This is the hardest part.
We don’t want to let go of what we had. We don’t want this change. In acceptance our energy is freed. Acceptance puts us back in the driver’s seat. But it requires a deliberate decision to let go of what was and accept what is happening. This is especially difficult with a divorce.
Put yourself back in charge
Visualize yourself in charge of the situation. We may not be able to alter what is happening, but we have the ability to choose how we will respond to it. After the initial shock, anger and anxiety, purposefully focus on taking charge.
Find something pleasing every day
Find one thing every day that is pleasing or uplifting. Post motivational and encouraging sayings where you can see them during the day – on the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator door, on the dashboard of your car. Post a list of all your blessings. Keep a pencil handy to add to the list.
Write out affirmative “I” statements. Take them with you wherever you go and repeat them often. These statements celebrate your strengths. “I am capable of handling this situation.”
Focus on God’s Gifts
Focus on the gifts God has given us: His son, His love, His hope, His strength. Ask God for courage and wisdom and faith to believe He will never leave us.
Christmas is what we celebrate in our hearts. Re-set your spirit with God’s special blessings. You will experience renewed energy, creativity and hope.
You are putting up holiday decorations and instead of feeling happy, you feel sad and depressed. Holidays can be stressful – not only because of all the extra demands on our time, but because sometimes they represent a painful past; a loss of someone we shared our life, a childhood we never had or a life filled with pain and disappointment.
Emotions – sometimes we wish we didn’t feel so much. We medicate ourselves with drugs or alcohol or endless shopping sprees to dull the ache. We lose ourselves in parties rather than enjoying friendships. We push away feelings of sadness or try to run away from them. But deep inside a tiny voice pleads, “I am tired of feeling sad. I want to feel peace and happiness. I want to experience that childlike wonder of expectation and anticipation this Christmas.”
How do we get beyond old painful feelings that are triggered this time of year?
1. Allow yourself to feel. Walling off, pushing away or somehow trying to contain our past can be stressful and exhausting. Only when we work through painful issues can we be free from their grip. If you continue to experience intrusive emotions from your past, gift yourself time with a good therapist who can help you process the pain so you can move on.
2. Acceptance. The losses from our past continue to haunt us because we have not accepted them. Acceptance stops the cycle of resistance, resentment, anger and helplessness. While the losses in our life will always be a defining part of who we are, grieving allows painful memories to heal.
3. Focus on blessings. Even in the darkest of times when we are struggling to survive, there are things to be thankful for. Focusing on blessings changes our internal chemical system allowing us to respond differently to life. Thankfulness releases new energy.
4. Reach out. It has been said many times, but we need to be reminded again and again that when we reach out to others in need we feel better. Reaching out puts a new perspective on our own troubles. And it takes so little time and effort. A smile and empathy for the frazzled clerk, choosing not to get angry or grumpy when standing in long lines, giving grace to others who are having a tough day are small ways we can reach out that don’t cost a penny.
5. Stay in the here and now. When you become aware your thoughts are constantly tuning into the negative, tell yourself “stop.” Listening to old negative messages from the past is a habit. We can choose to shut off our internal critic. You are in charge of the control button.
Christmas is a time to rejoice in a new beginning. It is the time a Savior was born and in Him we find the peace and healing that our heart longs for. He came because He loves us. Reach out and take His healing grace and allow Him to be a part of your daily life.
Perhaps like me, you take on more than you can handle. It isn’t that I can’t say No – I just want to do lots of things. I keep adding without eliminating and continue to readjust and refine my schedule to fit everything in.
I’m okay until the unexpected is thrown into the mix, like having the oil changed in my car, sending a get well card, taking time to call a neighbor who has just lost her spouse….
As I go over the activities I am involved in, there are few I want to eliminate. So how do I keep stress from accumulating?
For example, I always take some kind of work with me when I leave for appointments. While waiting for my car to be serviced, I read some professional articles I had put on hold. Or I close my eyes and purposefully relax all the parts of my body. Singing in two chorales, I use driving time to listen to practice CDs and vocalize or think about articles and blogs I want to write.
Second, refine work habits.
Regulating my time requires some unwanted self-discipline. However, I am in charge of what I want to accomplish and I know I do not accomplish much when I feel stressed. Consistent time management is necessary to accomplish my goals. If I religiously maintain a work schedule and work on one project at a time. This can be a challenge for me since my mind is going in many directions at once and requires focus.
Third, break up long routines.
Working out of my home office allows me the opportunity to periodically take a break to do something totally different. I complete household chores, or I do my physical therapy exercises or go for a walk.
Fourth, schedule R/R times.
After a certain hour in the day, I “leave” my office and my “to do” lists. It is my time to vegetate or do fun things. It is as important in each day as work. During the day, when the pressures of time and job completion begin to rise, I take immediate steps to reduce that by taking a mini time out, closing my eyes, breathing deeply and slowly and thinking about something positive and soothing. I often relax by listening to my Relaxation CD.
Fifth, post and use affirmations daily.
Affirmations are a regular part of my everyday life. I have posted helpful bible verses and statements of motivation and encouragement around my home. I affirm my ability to make choices that are right for me. I admit my shortcomings as well as my strengths. It enables me to reach out to others and is the beginning of learning new exciting things about life. I look for and incorporate ways to laugh as often as possible. And I can leave my office with things undone and know that I am the one who puts unrealistic expectations on myself and what I do.
Life is full and wonderful. We can use our time more effectively to accomplish the things we want and let go of those things that are stressful. We choose our schedules, self-regulation and purpose. God has given each of us many skills and talents and we can find the time to develop them.
However, when our level of stress continues to rise without relief, we soon become flooded. Like rising water in a river, when it overflows its banks, everything around it is flooded and damaged. High levels of stress can begin to damage our health as well.
We often think of stress as major events. But it is often the accumulation of many small stresses that eventually overwhelm us eroding our ability to think and respond. Life becomes an endless “to do” list. Worry and anxiety are constantly at the fringes of our minds and fears become bigger than life. We fall into a downward spiral of frustration, anger and feeling out of control. We resign ourselves to working to survive and a joyless existence.
With the demand to do more, better and in less time, we may feel as though we are on a roller coaster ride careening round breathless corners and up and down steep slopes. Like the rider at carnival rides, we feel no control over our lives. Yet, we can have control.
Here are three suggestions to help take back your life.
1. Take a quick inventory of your life right now. I know – I know – you are too busy to sit down with a pad and pencil. Yet, unless we slow down long enough to take stock of what we are doing or not doing we won’t be able to make the changes we want. What do you have control over? What don’t you have control over? Highlight the ones that you have control of. Which ones can you eliminate or replace?
2. Lifestyle. A lifestyle becomes a habit. It may have been okay at some point in life to be carefree, but is no longer productive today. Without some predictable and reliable routines, life becomes hectic and disorganized. You may think that routines are boring and stifling – but they really give you the freedom to choose how you spend your time.
3. Say no. No to all the things you believe you have to have – no to all the things you believe you have to do. When work is 24-7 with few breaks, we become exhausted and relaxation is snatched on the run. Some people thrive on the adrenalin rush of life in the fast lane. But for most of us, we need predetermined and planned breaks that actually allow time to rest and recharge.
Next week we will look at the inventory and make some plans of action.
As I drove around the curve in the road there ahead of me, frozen in the headlights of my car, was a young female deer. As I slammed on the brakes swerving to miss her, the deer suddenly came to life and bounded across the road, missing the impact of collision by inches. Two young fawns came trotting out of the darkness to follow their mother into the woods on the opposite side of the road.
In the mille-seconds in which this drama occurred, my heart was pounding, my hands had become clammy, my stomach churned and my body shaking. My normally calm, uneventful drive home from work had just turned into a potential disastrous accident.
Life can be like that. We go along as usual when some unexpected tragedy, crisis, or threat appears and life slams on the brakes. Sometimes the threat is real – sometimes it isn’t. But in seconds, our body gears up to respond, setting in motion our ability to run, fight or find ways to survive.
Maybe you have experienced waking from a sound sleep at night. Your heart is racing; you bolt upright and strain to hear through the deadly silence. When you determine that it was your cat prowling around the house, your body relaxes and you go back to sleep. If, however, you continue to dwell on a potential threat, your body remains geared up.
Dangers we face
For each of us, danger presents itself in a different way. Sometimes it is real – sometimes it is our imagination playing tricks on us. What some see as a threat, others see as a challenge. Fear helps us survive; anxiety gives us pause to determine what changes or preventative measures, if any, need to be made.
However, when possible threats or disasters are continually blown out of proportion, we remain in the fear and anxiety mode and we begin to experience dis-stress.
Today’s threats are real
The potential threats of today are very real.
Companies go out of business and with it our jobs. With so many people out of work and intense competition finding a job becomes increasingly difficult.
Over qualification as well as under qualification can be a problem.
Single parents work harder and worry more about being able to take care of their kids. Shrinking retirement packages determine when and if we can retire.
The concerns are real. And it is only normal and natural to worry. But remaining in a fear and anxiety state drains us of energy and our ability to think and find solutions.
Lower your fear and anxiety levels
So how do we lower our stress levels when the stakes are so high? While each situation is different requiring different strategies and options, here are some things all of us can do to reduce our worry and stress levels.
1. First, address your fear and anxiety. These feelings can become overwhelming and pervasive. Write down your greatest fears and challenge them. At the core of many fears is an underlying belief that we can’t survive because we are not good enough, smart enough, skilled enough, etc. We may focus on past failures and tell ourselves we will fail in the future.
Challenge negative thinking with affirmative statements. Here are some sample ones:
“I am capable to meet whatever challenges I am confronted with. I have what it takes to weather this storm. I am a good problem-solver. I can seek advice from others. I am creative and determined. I have an “I can do” attitude.”
Create your own. Make them positive “I” statements.
Repeat them over and over again as many times as it takes to balance your fear and anxiety.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel or think that way. You are putting in place alternative thinking that will release your energy and creative problem solving.
2. Make a list of all your “what if” statements along with their accompanying beliefs.
For example, “What if I lose my job? Then I will lose my home; end up on the streets, etc.”
Now challenge each one. We project the worst in our mind. What proof do you have that things are really going to turn out that bad. There is a 50% chance that it won’t.
3. Take the worst possible scenarios and brainstorm options.
“If I lose my job, I will look for part time work, drastically cut back on spending, sell some of my stuff, find different living arrangements, etc.”
While these may not be ideal solutions, they allow us to explore creative alternatives. Survival solutions do not mean you stay there forever.
4. Direct your energy away from fear to action of some kind. What preventative measures can you put in place right now for a potential serious downturn?
Start budgeting. Include your children in this process. This is a great teaching moment. Stop all unnecessary spending.
We may think we have to have the latest technical gadget, but in reality we don’t. Cut corners wherever you can, start saving and downsizing.
Analyze your work skills. How can they be transferred to something different? Put your energy into becoming an indispensible and valuable employee. Even if you lose your job, you will be better prepared, more self-disciplined and able to transfer your skills to other settings.
5. When anxiety is triggered, take it to God and ask Him to replace it with peace, strength, courage and confidence.
6. Challenge your fears.
We are never free from dangers. Every generation has had life threatening situations and each generation has been required to improvise and be willing to start over as many times as it takes.
We will experience fear and anxiety. But we can determine what we do with it. Challenge your fear thoughts. Are your dangers real or are they paper dragons?
Replace worry and fear with reliable and concrete information.
Affirm your ability to meet whatever challenges are thrown at you. Then focus on what you can do and work on problems when they are in the here and now.
What do you say to yourself about what you are experiencing?
We can experience stress through an onslaught of everyday problems that seem to accumulate like a snowball rolling down hill. We barely have time to deal with one major problem when another appears.
Or we get hit with some crisis or potential crisis:
loss of our job or fear of losing it
on-going work-related problems
constant fighting and turmoil at home
loss of a loved one
a major illness
our marriage is on the rocks
We live in uncertain and difficult times with constant pressure to do more in less time and do it faster and better.
Our Initial Response
When faced with a crisis, our initial response is shock and disbelief followed by fear and anxiety. As we look around and see the wreckage of a well planned life now in tatters, we may feel a sense of hopelessness. We know we need to do something, but feel rooted in place, unable to know where to begin.
Our thoughts may go something like this:
“Now what do I do? I’m so tired of all the problems. No matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to make a difference anyway.”
While these are normal and natural initial responses to the stresses in our lives, remaining in that psychological spot can continue to spiral us down out of control or send us into a subtle and lingering depression.
Words are powerful and reflect our responses to life. What we say to ourselves is critical. They set in motion how our body and mind respond to what is happening.
Do we panic and run?
Do we strike out at someone or something?
Will we look for a scapegoat – someone to blame for all our problems?
Problems can be so overwhelming all we want to do is crawl into bed, pull the covers up over our head and wish it all will go away. It rarely does.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
Whenever life seems to be spinning out of control, it helps to step back and take some deep, calming breaths. Our breathing becomes restricted and tight in our chest when we are stressed. Taking deliberate slow, deep breaths will begin to lower stress levels. When your breathing becomes slow, steady and relaxed, you will notice that your mind begins to calm down as well.
Find a Quiet Space
If possible take a quiet time-out. Go for a quiet walk. Or find a quiet spot to sit and just focus on your breathing. When you become more relaxed and calm, become aware of your thoughts.
The words we say to ourselves can both motivate us and affirm our abilities or they can sink us into a quagmire of helplessness, hopelessness and defeat. It isn’t what happens to us in life that defeats us – it’s how we respond to it. It’s what we do with what life hands us.
Deliberately replace negative thoughts with possibility thinking. These are not Pollyannaish thoughts that skip us down a candy cane path in an unrealistic world. These are deliberate choices you are making to respond to life in a more positive way.
It is saying:
“I can do this. It will be tough, but there are always solutions. I can handle this.”
Turn your statements into positive affirmations that can be repeated many times throughout the day.
Highlight Bible Passages
Affirm God’s love for you. As you read your Bible, verses that speak directly to your heart and needs will often jump out. Highlight them or copy them for easy access.
Here are two of my favorites:
“As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and of good courage…” -Joshua 5:6
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name, you’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place it won’t be a dead end – because I am God, your personal God.” -Isaiah 43 (The Message)