DEALING WITH THE STRESS OF THE HOLIDAYS
By HELEN ADRIENNE, MSW, ACSW, BCD
The stress of the holidays is a topic that has appeared with regularity in articles and newsletters since 1979 when I began working as a psychotherapist with infertility patients. Rightfully so. Infertility is demanding and stressful. The Holidays are demanding and stressful. And in this case, one plus one equals way more than 2.
It is no longer in dispute that both the mental and physical experiences of stress land in the body. That’s about the last thing that an infertility patient needs. Your body is the stage upon which the treatment gets played out. Being poked and prodded physically evolves very naturally into a mental ordeal for everyone.
This article addresses a big opportunity to turn down the level of stress that comes with the holidays. That opportunity exists in the marital relationship.
In the best of families, tensions abound at holiday time. The backdrop for get-togethers may have to do with who expects what, who can’t stand whom, whose house is center stage, whose traditions “win”, who’s impossible to buy presents for and who’s jealous of what. And of course, a separate and very long thorn is who’ll be there who has babies. The whos, whose and whats go on ad nauseum.
This does not mean that all families are looney toons. It does mean that in the most serene of families, things can’t ever be perfect – AND – you are not likely to be in the mood for anyone’s imperfections. It is a known fact that often, well-meaning people do not know what to say and invariably say the wrong thing, presuming that they even know about your struggle. And if they don’t know, the secret may be the lesser of two evils, but it still creates additional stress.
The opportunity for any couple lies in the fact that it is critically important to be on the same page when it comes to making decisions about how to handle the holidays. Infertility may be the first crisis of major proportions that has hit you in the time that you’ve been together. Any crisis will demand that a person locate his or her coping methods. It might even put you in a spin if you need better coping mechanisms than you have. But it is only the rare couple whose coping mechanisms are congruent when a crisis hits. This does not mean that you aren’t supportive of one another. Most couples are. But there is a difference between the support that flows out of compassion for someone you love and working to achieve a united front, which works best, at holiday time especially.
The Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity. It may feel dangerous to set a limit to one or both families. But it is very important for any couple to define their “coupleness.” As married adults, it is your job and your right to let both families know what boundaries you need for your mutual satisfaction. It is highly recommended that if you cannot get past the pull back to the whos and whats of your respective families, that you seek the guidance of a therapist with skills in both infertility counseling and family counseling.
Whether on your own or with professional help, if you successfully decide and declare your decisions about the holidays, you set yourselves up to minimize the impact of family/holiday stress on your bodies. And beyond the logistics of who and what, there exists a further opportunity to nurture the marriage. Now is the time to explore techniques of mind/body relaxation that you can enjoy together. Besides being on the same page, feeling loved and understood is palliative and has a positive impact as a stress reducer.
As hectic as the holiday time can be, it would make a difference if you could locate a yoga class designed specifically for couples or a massage class for couples. Or, this could be a really good time to go to a spa together for a weekend. By focusing on gaining physical relief from tension, you can break the grip of the aspects of the infertility challenge that land in your bodies.
Furthermore, couples can learn methods of breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation and self-hypnosis that go a long way toward breaking the grip of the infertility challenge from the inside out. These techniques are extremely empowering, at a time when couples tend to feel powerless.
In this society most of us live in a state of red alert, tolerating high levels of stress. The incidence of stress-induced illness and anxiety has risen dramatically. As a culture, we need to take better tender-loving care of ourselves, but we tend not to. So, while there are many who need to learn stress reduction techniques as much as you do, few need to learn them more than you.
Infertility is nasty. But the silver lining in the clouds is that as a couple, you can and should put your needs front and center. You need to keep your love alive, for each other and for yourselves. The best way to do this is to acknowledge the enormous stress involved and take the opportunity to learn to communicate so you can land on the same page. And then, you can pursue the myriad of techniques available these days which reduce stress on the body and the mind.
HELEN ADRIENNE, MSW, ACSW, BCD
PRACTITIONER OF MIND/BODY MEDICINE
420 EAST 64TH STREET
NY, NY 10021