Overcoming the Hidden Cause of Holiday Stress

by Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, author of Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind

Illustration by Doug Shannon

Love, connection, and reflection are what the holidays are supposed to be about, yet many of us wind up feeling irritated, competitive, and stressed this time of year. We drive by our neighbor’s house and they have a new display of laser lighting, and suddenly the little wreath on our door doesn’t feel like enough anymore. At our friend’s Hanukkah meal, they serve ten traditional dishes on artisanal pottery. They’re coming to our house next week, we better get planning! And what about gifts; have we spent enough? Do they have it already? Is the toilet sparkling? Is the turkey too pink in the middle?

The more we try to create connection with others, it seems the more we feel judged and alone. While these feelings seem petty, they are real­—and adaptive. Our holiday anxiety is triggered in the survival oriented limbic brain that perceives opportunities and threats. This monkey mind is always on the lookout, comparing us to others. If we don’t measure up, we could lose status. We won’t be loved. We won’t belong anymore.

Unfortunately, this thinking can take over our lives. If we don’t question it, we will exhaust ourselves spending too much time and money on things like gifts, decorations, and hosting meals and parties. These safety behaviors signal our limbic brain that there is just cause to try harder. They feed the monkey mind, guaranteeing more anxiety in the future.

How can we break the holiday stress cycle and really sit back and enjoy the holiday season? The first step is to come up with a new way of thinking to counter our perfectionist monkey mindset.

Perfectionistic Monkey Mindset

New Mindset

If things don’t turn out just right,
I have failed.

If others have better decorations, gifts, etc., it means I am not good enough.

I will do some things well and others poorly, and neither reflect my worth as a person.

It is more important to do my best and keep sight of my true values than to compare myself to others.

To nurture our new mindset, we need to feed it new behaviors that don’t stretch us so thin. This is challenging in that it takes courage to tolerate the anxiety that I should do more without acting on it. Here are some behaviors that will feed a healthier mindset for this holiday season:

  • Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to make everything perfect. Let go. Maybe that means not dusting or buying holiday cookies rather than baking homemade ones.
  • Buy gifts only the most important people in your life this year.
  • Restrict time on gift buying, cleaning the house, meal planning. (Set a timer!)
  • If you feel swamped between work and holiday prep and other obligations, take a day off work, if you can, to get things done and give yourself a little time to relax.

If these strategies make you feel uncomfortable, great! It means we are challenging our perfectionist monkey mindset. It takes courage to break the cycle and develop new behaviors. When we stop feeding the monkey, we begin cultivating personal peace, presence, and connection with others. Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the holiday—relish the food, friends, and family.

Jennifer Shannon, LMFT, is author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens, The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens, and Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind. She has a private practice in Santa Rosa, CA, and is a diplomat of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy.

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