By Amber Kennedy

It's the most wonderful time of the year - and also one of the most exhausting. The holidays present a minefield of stressful situations, from family feuds to financial fears. Old Dominion University's Jason Parker, a senior lecturer of psychology, offers tips for banishing burnout, managing stress and finding the joy of the season.

Managing Money and Expectations

The problem:

Finding the perfect gift for everyone on your list can add up.

What to do:

Remember gift-giving is meant to be an expression of love, not a source of stress. Parker recommends avoiding competition.

"Everybody wants reciprocity, but you're giving what you have to give and how you want to give it," he says.

Set a budget and stick to it, Parker says, and try to resist the impulse to spend the same amount on every recipient. A thoughtful gift for one person need not be as expensive as an equally thoughtful gift for someone else. "Fair doesn't mean equal," Parker says.

Politics are Personal

The problem:

Navigating political differences around the holiday dinner table.

What to do:

The past year has presented politically charged debates that have even the closest family members wishing they could "unfriend" relatives on Facebook. When the family gathers, Parker advises keeping conversations "calm, pleasant and positive." Take a cue, he says, from the Food Network, which saw its ratings soar after audiences needed an escape from 9/11 coverage.

"You can always talk about food," Parker says. "Focus on what is right in front of you right now."

Navigating Family Friction

The problem:

Family gatherings always seem to lead to confrontations or interventions.

What to do:

Falling back into old fights or regressing to former roles happens even when we have the best intentions. But Parker warns, "Be careful not to engage in higher court," explaining that when family gathers, sometimes past arguments are revived and "tried" in front of the jury of family peers.

"Disagreements don't need to be an event," he says.

If it's likely the pressure will build to an explosion, Parker recommends finding a way to address friction beforehand for the sake of having a pleasant family gathering. "Call that family member and ask, 'Can we set aside some time beforehand? I'd like to express my feelings to you about this,'" he says. "Use 'I feel' statements, instead of accusational 'you did this, you did that' statements. If you're saying how you feel, your feelings are valid and not up for debate."

If a family fight erupts at the dinner table, don't agree to disagree and don't reward a family bully with attention, Parker says. "You can always save a conversation for later. Just say, 'This is not the time or place.'"

Drawing Boundaries

The problem:

Many families may be facing holidays apart due to the pandemic, or because of disagreements about vaccination or political issues. For those who feel they can't compromise, it can be hard to forgive themselves for disappointing family.

What to do:

"An act of self-forgiveness is an act of self-love, and the most important thing is to ask what you've learned from this experience," Parker says. "Consider what you've learned, what you feel, and make a note to yourself about what you'll do differently next year."

Just Say 'No'

The problem:

Feeling burnout as you approach the holidays.

What to do:

Sometimes managing holiday stress comes down to managing expectations and commitments. "No is not a bad word; it's just the answer to a question," Parker says. "I have preached this for 25 years as a therapist."

Pandemic stress compounded with holiday stress has many people feeling signs of burnout right when calendars are filling up with engagements. Before committing to every invitation, Parker recommends factoring in sleep and decompression time.

"Time is actually more valuable than money for many people. If you find yourself with a lot of friends wanting to reconnect, you don't have to decline all invites, but you can always suggest another time," he says.

How can you tell you're experiencing burnout? "When things start to feel like a job, instead of joyous," Parker says. "In life, nothing forced is fun, even when it's things you enjoy."

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