Substance abuse is sometimes referred to as a threefold disease: mental, physical, and spiritual. Around November and December, however, those in recovery jokingly reinterpret the threefold disease concept as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. As corny and tired as the joke is, it rings true. The holidays can be, and often are, risky to well-being.

Unfortunately, just about anyone today can identify with the sentiment expressed by this threefold concept. The holidays are stressful! Many of us understand this, but why is this season of joy also a time of discomfort and pain? To paraphrase Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all individuals are unhappy in their own particular way, but I think there is a common thread knitting together much of the stress and unhappiness that presents itself during the holiday season: expectations.

The biggest expectation of all is that we should be happy. From Halloween until after the New Year, we are inundated with messages imploring us to be happy. The music, the movies, the advertisements, the parties, the greeting cards, the family: it’s overwhelming. Happy Holidays begins to sound less like an expression of cheer and more like a command! The impulse to make every holiday moment joyous and bright has the potential to backfire. Unremitting happiness is neither possible nor is it healthy. It’s normal and perfectly OK to be stressed or even blue when confronted with unsustainable expectations.

For those lucky enough to have fond holiday memories there can be an expectation that all holidays should match the magic and joy of our (hopefully!) halcyon youth. The nostalgic urge to recapture holidays past is reminiscent of an addict ceaselessly trying to recreate his first high; we almost, but never quite get there and we repeat the same mistakes over and over again always hoping for glorious results. Sounds like insanity to me! The only moment we have is now. The urge to recreate the past rips us from the present moment and makes it difficult to address our current realities, good or bad. Faced with the impossibility of turning back time, we can lash out in judgment, hurting others and ourselves. Fondly remember the past, but know that it is impossible to recreate. Besides, memory is unreliable and those fond remembrances likely exist that way only in our own minds.

There also is the insidious expectation that we should be able to meet and care for everyone’s needs during the holiday season. The simple fact is that I can give only what is truly mine. If I forget this, the season of giving can lead to emotional and financial bankruptcy. The intangible spirit guiding the urge to give – love – is a noble and powerful emotion and it might very well be an inexhaustible resource. However, the outward manifestations of love this time of year – overspending, overpromising, overextending – reflect a simple fact: humans possess finite power and when stressed beyond capacity, we will break. If I don’t have it (money, energy, emotion, enthusiasm, patience, etc.), then how can I give it?

Expectations are stressful and for many us, unhealthy. Thankfully, there are simple ways to manage holiday stress, anxiety, and depression. For a quick review of how to care for ourselves this time of year, I encourage you to review an article by Atlanta-area therapist, Alicia Simoni, “Helpful Tips for Dealing with Holiday Doldrums.”