Happy holidays? Not always

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume 113, No. 11December, 2013

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

The office of the Musicians’ Assistance Program is your one-stop shop for musicians’ health. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, housing, food stamps and more. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at or (212) 397-4802

This is the time of year when friends and strangers start wishing us “happy holidays” around the clock. While the sentiment is lovely, the actual reality of the holidays can conjure up a lot of feelings for us all. No matter what our religious or cultural traditions are, usually around this time of the year we’re getting together with family and friends to celebrate. So what’s not to love? Unfortunately, there are many pressures that leave us sapped of energy. Sometimes we may even end up feeling down. How does this happen? What can we do to stop it? And is it possible to have meaningful – and happy – holidays?


There are two things that tend to make the holidays very stressful: expectations and money. Let’s talk about expectations first.

Most of us have a relationship to the holidays that began in childhood. As children, the holidays were “given” to us by our parents, and all we had to do was sit back and let it happen. But as adults, we experience the holidays with much more responsibility and obligation. We want the holidays to be the idyllic version of our childhood – except now it’s all on us to make it happen! Add to this the stress of travel. Finally, mix together our parents, in-laws, children, cousins and family friends. We want people to behave well together, but the reality is beyond our control. All of this can make us feel out of sorts, to say the least. You may miss your sister during the year, but spending the weekend with both her and your parents may make you both feel (and act) like you’re 13 again!

On a much sadder note, the holidays might not be the same to you because your loved one is deceased and the holidays make you feel the loss all over again.

Or you might find yourself in a new relationship or even a marriage, which means you have to split your holiday time with your partner and get to know new traditions.

None of us have control over other people in our lives. But we do have control over understanding how we feel, and knowing what our expectations are. So it’s always a good idea to:

  • Take some time to think about what you expect and what’s important to you.
  • Identify which traditions you want to keep and which are best to let go of.
  • Discuss your expectations with your partner or family ahead of time and start making decisions now.

Once you know what you expect and have used good communication, you will feel more in control. Then you’ll be better able to manage stress from your family dynamics.


Money is the other major stressor that affects most of us during this time. Most Americans spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on travel and gifts, spending beyond their budget, and then getting sacked with a bunch of credit card debt after the holidays.

There are some very simple ways to combat the stress around money during the holidays.

  • Make a budget. Do you know your monthly personal expenses are? Which are fixed and which are flexible? Do you have a certain amount of spending money each month? Your spending money should be your budget for the holidays. Don’t spend your rent or health insurance money on holiday expenses!
  • Consider the idea of exchanging gifts with family that involve giving to charity. Or your gift doesn’t have to be about spending money at all – you can donate your time to a charity. You can even make this an activity that you do together!

By the way, why do we give to each other in the first place? From a social or spiritual point of view, giving is about love and appreciation. From the scientific side, we are now learning that even our own biology compels us to help each other out and brings us together. For instance, there is a hormone called oxytocin. It’s been called the “hug hormone.” Whenever you hug or kiss a loved one, this powerful hormone is released, our experience of trust and empathy is increased. So every time you hug a friend or family member, you’re giving yourself and your loved one an emotional boost and bond. It also turns out oxytocin is also correlated with giving. People who give also experience a boost in this hormone. So the moral of the story is that giving does mean something to us beyond the holiday traditions, and it need not be about spending money or shopping!


During the holidays, we all tend to eat and drink more than usual. Most of us hope to have fun and even relax. The only problem can be when we really over indulge, which leaves us feeling bloated or hung over. For those of us with substance abuse problems, we can end up relapsing. Here are some tips to help you avoid too much stress around indulging:

  • Pace yourself. Remember that eating should be enjoyable and about tasting the food, not about devouring it.
  • Try keeping your alcohol consumption to a minimum.
  • If you are in recovery, keep in touch with your sober support team during the holidays. Better that you reach for the phone or a kind ear rather than hurt yourself.


Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we still get the holiday blues. If stress pushes us past what we can tolerate, then we’re likely to have a have a stress reaction: feeling worried all the time or feeling isolated and alone. Sometimes basic self care – eating right, exercise, getting adequate sleep, getting back to a routine, getting support from friends – can help us to get back to life. But occasionally, those feelings stay with us. If you find you can’t get back on track after the holidays, consider speaking with a professional. Here at the Musicians’ Assistance Program, we offer free, confidential counseling with trained clinical social workers. We can help you identify the problems and come up with a treatment plan for you. We also can refer you to low-cost referrals for therapy or substance abuse treatment.

Happy holidays from the MAP office. We hope you have a meaningful celebration of relationships and life!