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Managing holiday stress with tips from holiday movies

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The holidays can be a stressful blur. Luckily, holiday movies can offer advice on how to navigate common seasonal stressors.

The holiday season can be full of cheer, but it can also bring unnecessary stress.

Whether it be from the pressure to get the perfect gift, last-minute changes of plans, or dysfunctional family dynamics, the holidays are not always easy to navigate. Many holiday movies reflect these sources of December stress and offer insight on, how to and how not to, navigate them.

Dr. Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a licensed clinical psychologist, an associate professor at Marquette University, and a movie buff. She spoke with Lake Effect’s Sam Woods to offer tips on how to manage common causes of holiday stress, using situations from holiday movies.

Home Alone: "So much to do, so little time"

The holidays are full of things to do — food to prepare, travel preparations, gifts to procure — and these long to-do lists can feel overwhelming. Home Alone takes this concept to an extreme, where Kate and Peter are in such a rush to catch a flight for Christmas that they leave their son, Kevin, home alone.

Knobloch-Fedders said all of the little things and long to-do lists can get in the way of enjoying time spent with loved ones. Even if it does not lead to child abandonment, focusing on these little things can get in the way of creating new holiday memories.

"Sometimes those minute details can take over our lives and give us that frustration, that irritation, this overwhelming sense of being overcome by things that are really small when you take a step back," she says.

"I would encourage people to take a pause and focus on ... special times and experiences that you want to lead the way in your holiday celebration," she says.

Jingle All the Way: getting the perfect gift

For those who give gifts during the holiday season, the pressure of getting the perfect gift for a loved one can be weighty. In Jingle All the Way, Howard wants to make up for prioritizing work over family by getting his son the perfect gift and goes to extreme lengths to make it happen.

Knobloch-Fedders encourages people feeling stressed about getting the perfect gift to focus on time spent together with loved ones and shared experiences rather than relying on material gifts to symbolize your love. Material gifts are nice, but they do not necessarily have a lengthy sentimental shelf life.

"We all know that human beings love things for about 10 minutes, and then our attention turns to the next thing," Knobloch-Fedders says. "And really material things are not as satisfying as deeper, more lasting human relationships and experiences."

Almost Christmas: family dysfunction

Family dysfunction, or feeling like an outcast in holiday family settings, is a common stressor during the holidays. Almost Christmas leans into this source of stress, as Walter just wants one thing for Christmas: for his four children to get along for five days during their first Christmas after his wife passed away earlier that year.

But this task proves to be more difficult than he hoped.

Returning back to family situations can re-engage emotions we have not felt since we were kids, and it's important to recognize when you are falling back into old patterns. Dr. Knobloch-Fedders suggested finding a way to re-engage with difficult family members in a way that reflects who you are now, not who you were when you were a kid.

"Oftentimes when we go back home ... it's like we're 10 years old again," she says. "Those family patterns are so deeply ingrained in us that it is easy to fall into those patterns without recognizing that you are now with more life experience, more wisdom and more freedom to relate to your family in different ways than when you were 10-years-old."

The Christmas Checklist: navigating grief and loss during the holidays

With so much emphasis on spending time with loved ones during the holidays, the absence of a loved one who has passed away can be difficult to manage. The Christmas Checklist follows the story of Emily, who is grieving her recently-deceased mother during the holidays.

She resolves to spend Christmas at home in her pajamas before discovering a list of self-healing holiday activities left by her mom. The discovery of this list helps Emily engage with the season while still feeling connected to her mother.

Dealing with grief and loss can be difficult at any time of year, but especially during the holidays. Knobloch-Fedders suggests not trying to run away from those feelings of grief, but to find a way to incorporate the memories of your loved one into your holiday celebrations.

"Think about a tradition or memory that you have with your loved one, and find a way to honor that memory," she says. "It may not be the same tradition without that person present, but it could be your time to celebrate the relationship that you had."

A Christmas Carol: navigating feelings of regret and loneliness

The holiday season can bring up memories of regret, or feelings of loneliness. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge memories of his past, including the love of his life leaving him due to his relentless pursuit of money.

Knobloch-Fedders says that feelings of loneliness or regret should be viewed as a measure of how you've grown from past mistakes. While you cannot change the past, these feelings can spur changes to your future.

"I think those feelings of loneliness or regret are good internal indicators of the person we want to be in the future," she says. "Now is a great time to write a letter of apology, perhaps, or reach out to someone you've been alienated from."

A Christmas Story: last minute changes of plans

It is not guaranteed that the holidays will go exactly as planned. Whether it be unexpected travel delays or burned food, plans can change on a dime.

A Christmas Story explores this in its final scenes, when the neighbors' dogs eat the family's Christmas dinner before it is finished cooking.

When things inevitably do not go as planned, Knobloch-Fedders reminds us that this can be a blessing in disguise. While they are inconvenient in the moment, they often lead to lifelong holiday memories shared with loved ones.

"I promise you that if the food is burned or dogs come in and take your Christmas dinner away, you will remember that for the rest of your life," she says. "And you might not remember that as much if the meal was perfect and all went according to plan."


Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
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