Offhand, I can think of four good sources of holiday stress: family, food, finances, and expectations. Each causes its own manner of stress, but like a toxic family with a volatile history, they all intertwine. For example: Your family has expectations that involve your finances, either via hosting a food-laden event, traveling to a food-laden event, or simply exchanging gifts.
Funny, but our current culture would have us believe that the more we spend, the more we care.
Is that messed up or what? Then, of course, there are the guilt purchases. You know, the sometimes extravagant but almost always expensive gifts you buy to convince someone how much you care when you won't be showing up in person. Or maybe you will be there, but you'll have to leave early, or it's the only time you've seen this person since whenever, and you feel guilty about that. Then there's the keeping-up-with-everyone-else spending. Your gift can't possibly come in at a dollar value less that the gifts "the others" are giving, or you'll look bad. So you either buy something you can't afford, or pony up your share of a gift you didn't choose and can't afford.
But I digress. Above are only a few examples of generic holiday stressors. A PMDD woman doesn't handle stress well to start with, and so when the holiday madness begins....
You can understand why all she wants is for it to be over, or at the very least, to get through it without a meltdown.
So let's stop for a minute, just stop and think. What are all these holiday gatherings supposed to be about? Connecting, making memories to hold you through until you see each other again, right? (Or, if you're all local, celebrating another year of life's ups and downs together.)
But somewhere along the way, everything shifted. Away from Jesus and family, peace and goodwill, and toward fueling a selling season that accounts for 40% of the year's retail revenue.
Connecting more deeply with friends and family is not about two months plus of frenzied shopping to see who comes up with the biggest, best, shiniest gift. It's about coming to the table well-rested and healthy, comfortable and caring. It's about making eye contact (put those electronics away!!), feeling genuinely happy to see each other, and connecting in a special way...but not a deep and forever-bonding kind of way. If you come to the party expecting that, you've fallen into the trap of unrealistic expectations, and you'll only be disappointed.
Holiday gatherings are for having lighthearted fun and making good, positive memories. If a heart to heart connection happens, consider it a bonus. But don't go into the event expecting anything more than a good time.
Happy holiday gatherings are about spending time with people who share common interests, values, and beliefs. And if that doesn't happen—which is most of the time—it's about managing to enjoy the day and company as best as you can. In a worst case scenario, it's about keeping the peace (and your peace) for as long as you and these spiritual, mental, and emotional strangers spend time together.
Not everyone is blessed enough to have a group to gather with. If you are, but can't stand to be around them, and absolutely, positively can not escape attending the festivities, the prevailing advice is to limit your visits to a couple of hours at a time. If you've traveled long distance, take breaks to visit friends in the area, or maybe revisit familiar local haunts, or even show your partner or kids where you grew up. If you don't want to do that, or don't know anyone else in town, maybe you can visit some sort of tourist attraction in the area for a break between bouts with relatives. Or you can offer to be the gofer who runs errands. Somebody always needs something they forgot to bring at these things. Offer to fetch it, and use the time to regroup. If you're not from the area, just take a walk or a drive to explore the surroundings and clear your head. What is it with people acting as if there's something wrong with wanting to spend more than a few minutes alone? Could it be they envy your independence? Wish they could break away from the herd as well? Think about it.
If you have no relatives nearby, find some friends and start your own traditions. Traditions are important, but creating new traditions can be equally important. Families no longer look the same as they did in the past--we've got single moms and dads, same sex moms and dads, bi-racial couples and children, adopted children, foster children, blended families, events where all parties and their current significant other show up, presumably for the sake of the kids—so why should family events always be the same? Consider incorporating something new into the mix. Maybe you can all go to church together, or to a restaurant for dinner, or to a movie or bowling after your meal. Mix up the traditional menu but try adding something new. Maybe even ditch the whole thing and have a theme party.
Or maybe you can agree to go to the big family shindig only every other year, or only participate on alternate holidays. Spend one any way you want to, (whether it be by staying home or planning a ski chalet weekend) and the next by attending a family gathering. Or schedule the family event at a different time than the true holiday. Think of all the stress you'll avoid, not scrambling out there with all the other holiday travelers.
But don't go at all if you know the event will only bring more pain and destruction to yourself and the family. Family gathering time is not the time to resolve family issues, conflicts, or make major family decisions. The discussion about your cousin's financial woes or addiction or whether or how to move someone into assisted living is NOT one you want to have at a holiday gathering. Ditto details about selling, renting, or discarding family property. True, it may be the only time you are all together, but the holiday celebration itself is NOT the forum for such undertakings. Those require a separate family meeting.
Just as the holidays are stressful for all of us, most of these suggestions could apply to anyone. To specifically address your PMDD, I'd have to return to the line of "coming to the table well-rested and healthy, comfortable and caring." If you are feeling none of these things on the date of the event, then you are not wrong in wanting to cancel, and if you do, please do not feel guilty or accept any blame for doing so. Would you stay home if you had the flu? Negative moods are just as contagious and can ruin a party just as easily.
Feeling guilt and accepting blame only escalate your PMDD symptoms. By staying away from the event, you are protecting both the event and taking care of yourself. Nothing in this world is more important than seeing to your own health and well-being. Especially when it comes to your mental health.
Because if you don't care enough about yourself to take care of you, believe me, nobody else will either.
Next up: What do you do if you are the hostess?