A 3-Step Process for Reducing Holiday Stress: The RCP

I'm not advocating for a holiday season filled with negative thoughts. Rather, I am suggesting that we all adjust our expectations, even if ever so slightly, so that we do not place undue stress on ourselves when the seemingly big things (that are actually not so big) do not go as planned.
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christmas stress   busy woman...
christmas stress busy woman...

The holiday season is upon us, and whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other holiday, you are most likely entering into a busy time of year. I tend to agree with the lyrics of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" -- it really is the most wonderful time of the year! The food, family, friends, and gifts are all great parts of this season. But we can allow the holidays to bring a fair amount of stress into our lives if we're not careful.

So, how can we reduce some of the holiday stress so that we can truly enjoy our time with family and friends? Try the "RCP" approach.

Before telling you what an RCP is, let me back up and tell you what an RJP is. A realistic job preview, or "RJP" for short, is a technique used by hiring managers and human resource professionals to help adjust the expectations of those they hire so that they have an accurate, or realistic, view of the job they are applying for. The RJP works like this: An individual comes in for a job interview and is told about all of the great things going on at the organization. However, an RJP will also include some unfavorable information, such as the fact that the employee might have to work two Saturdays each month or that he/she will be expected to travel four nights per week. By including unfavorable information along with the favorable information, RJPs have been shown to be effective in reducing turnover and increasing job satisfaction in workers.

So let's extend this concept to the holiday season and give ourselves a Realistic Christmas Preview or Realistic Hanukkah Preview. We typically think a lot about the fun we have during the holidays. If we aren't careful, we can tend to have an unrealistic expectation that everything will go just as planned. But Hollywood has warned us over the years, through classics like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story, that the holidays don't always go as planned. Sometimes Cousin Eddie empties his RV septic tank on your lawn and other times you shoot your eye out on Christmas morning with your new BB gun.


In applying the RCP to my own life, for example, I might expect that every little detail of the Christmas party we're hosting for our friends will go as planned. That is, I might have a vision in my head of what that gathering will look like, from the food, to the music, to the guests interacting with one another. If I go into it with this unrealistic expectation, I will be a bit disappointed when all doesn't go just as planned. This means my expectations will go unmet. And one of the biggest causes of stress is unmet expectations.

Wouldn't it be nice if I could reduce some of my stress before the holidays even begin? By using an RCP, I can proactively tell myself that everything will not be perfect at this Christmas party. Does this mean I'm taking a pessimistic viewpoint? No. On the contrary, I am simply aligning my expectations with what could happen in reality. I might overcook the turkey. It's possible that my 10-year-old iPod Mini will decide to stop working, leaving me without my trusty Christmas playlist. One of the children at the party might decapitate baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph from our nativity scene. This is just the beginning of a list of what might go wrong. If I accept these possibilities before the party even begins, then I can enjoy myself more knowing that something will probably go wrong. The solution to lowering my stress is to adjust my expectations up front. If all goes well, then I will be pleasantly surprised.

So how can you give yourself an RCP? Below are three tips for reducing holiday stress:

1. Identify stressors based on past holiday experiences.

Perhaps start by thinking about your past holiday experiences and identify when and where you have been frustrated. Maybe it was an office holiday party where you got cornered by that crazy coworker who monopolized your time. Or maybe you thought you had purchased the gift your significant other wanted, but it turns out he/she did not give the reaction you'd hoped for.

2. Adjust your expectations for this year's holiday experiences.

Think about whether or not similar experiences have the potential to happen this holiday season. Is it possible the same co-worker will try to corner you again, preventing you from getting some face-time with your supervisor? Know this heading in to the party and realize that you may not get a chance to talk to your supervisor. You might have to be more proactive or schedule a meeting at another time. Is that cantankerous cousin coming to your Christmas Eve dinner? Knowing that he will be there and will likely criticize some element of your party will help you to be less frustrated if that event actually takes place. It does not mean that you'll simply brush off the comment. But if you know it is coming then the negative comment is likely to be less impactful. Again, it is worth repeating from earlier: Expected negative outcomes are viewed as less repulsive than unexpected negative outcomes.

3. Put these experiences into perspective.

Finally, related to any of the experiences you identified, ask yourself, "Is this worth getting worked up about?" As it turns out, a majority of the things we stress about are of very little significance (like overcooking the turkey). Two years ago my wife and I spent our holiday vacation visiting relatives across the Southeast. We were away from our home for two weeks and stayed in four different accommodations during that time. To top it off, we had a one-year old child and a dog with us. We were pretty worn out by the end of the trip, and we could have consistently complained about how we were away from home or how much we were spending in fuel. But instead of pouting about all the driving and loading and unloading the car, we chose to be grateful for the opportunity to visit family and the means to be able to do so. Certainly there are life events that are difficult to frame in a positive light. But when possible, choosing to be grateful for what we do have provides the opportunity for us to experience positive emotions instead of negative emotions.

In conclusion, I'm not advocating for a holiday season filled with negative thoughts. Rather, I am suggesting that we all adjust our expectations, even if ever so slightly, so that we do not place undue stress on ourselves when the seemingly big things (that are actually not so big) do not go as planned. Here's to a holiday season filled with love and laughter! And hopefully I will not overcook the turkey!