Managing stress around the holidays
‘Tis the season to experience joy, wonder, gratitude, togetherness, and — for many people — massive amounts of holiday stress. Whether it’s feeling pressure to pull off a picture-perfect Thanksgiving dinner or being overwhelmed by the constant whirlwind of social commitments and to-dos in the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s, holiday stress can often get in the way of what’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”
If you’re prone to stress and some form of general anxiety during normal circumstances, the holidays can be particularly intense. In fact, in one recent survey, 62% of respondents described their stress levels as “very” or “somewhat” elevated during the holidays. For some people, financial obligations and gift-giving may well be the source of such stress. Others may be triggered by holiday parties, crowded stores, travel, and other social obligations; especially if one has to deal with difficult family members or suffer from social anxiety.
Alternatively, the absence of family or lack of social connections is often heightened during the holidays, causing feelings of loneliness and isolation. There’s just something about the constant hustle and bustle of the holiday season that can make even the most laid-back person feel run down and stressed out.
Regardless of the source, holiday stress — like any other stress — can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being. Mentally speaking, when you are stressed, you may experience everyday anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, sadness and depression. The physical effects can be serious, too. For example, stress can trigger a spike in the release of epinephrine and cortisol, aka the stress hormones. Too much epinephrine can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes; too much cortisol can increase blood sugar levels, suppress the immune system, and constrict blood vessels. Though everyone experiences stress in different ways, common physical symptoms of stress often include tension in the muscles, tightness in the chest, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, and dizziness.
So many things about the holidays are, quite honestly, out of your hands. You can’t control whether your flight will be delayed or prevent your uncle from drinking too much at dinner. That’s why the usual tips for coping with holiday stress — for example, “Start planning sooner” or “Shop online to avoid the crowds” — aren’t always helpful, because life is unpredictable. Even if you successfully plan ahead and shop online hassle-free, there may be other situations that arise that will throw you for a loop.
Instead, learning to change the way we relate to things that happen during the holidays and becoming more at ease with uncertainty can make a difference when we’re trying to cope with holiday stress. See if any of the following tips might work for you:
Reframe how you perceive holiday stress. Many people understandably view the entire holiday season as an obligation or chore because it’s filled with stressors at every turn. But stress doesn’t have to always be interpreted as something negative. There are plenty of circumstances in which stress can be powerful or energizing, helping you to prepare and rise up to meet life’s challenges; for example, the adrenaline rush you experience when you’re trying to meet a deadline, or the excitement you feel when you’re about to go on a first date.
This season, when you experience stress, try to think about it from another angle. For instance, let’s say you’re stressing out about all the gifts you have to buy; one way to reframe this situation is to take a moment to think about each person on your list and how grateful you are to have them in your life. Focusing on the feelings of love, warmth, and gratitude you have for these people can help to soften the intensity of stress and motivate you to choose a thoughtful present. What you initially perceived as bad stress can actually be reframed as good stress. Or, as another example, if you’re feeling stress because your flight got delayed, consider whether perhaps you’ve been given the opportunity to have some alone time to read a book or listen to a podcast before all the festivities start. The extra time to yourself may actually be a valuable gift.
Approach the holiday season mindfully. Mindfulness is the quality of being present, aware, and fully engaged with whatever we are doing at the moment. It can be particularly helpful in reducing stress and the power it has over us because when we’re being mindful, we are free from distractions or judgment and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. Simply put, even if we’re experiencing a stressful situation, we are less affected by it.
One of the best ways to practice mindfulness during the holidays is to concentrate on experiencing the festive atmosphere and traditions through your five senses. Fully immersing yourself in this way allows you to step back from unpleasant thoughts and emotions that arise from holiday stress. See the flickering flames of the menorah. Hear the jingling of bells or that all-to-familiar Mariah Carey Christmas song. Taste the buttery mashed potatoes during Thanksgiving dinner. Smell the homemade cookies baking in the oven. Feel the cool, crisp air on your face. These small, pleasant, sensory moments can help you tune in to your body, ground yourself in the present moment, and cultivate a sense of calm amidst the chaos.
Take care of yourself. The holiday season is all about giving — and that includes giving yourself whatever you need to reduce stress so you can fully appreciate and find meaning during this time. Because stress affects people in different ways, this can look different for everyone. For some people, it means having time each day for meditation. For others, it means getting plenty of sleep or exercise — or both. Eating nourishing foods, keeping a gratitude journal, and maintaining a normal schedule are other ways that people take care of themselves. If you are at a loss for which self-care activities work best for you, here’s an idea of something you can try: make time to do one thing each day that makes you happy. Incorporating joy into your life and reconnecting with the things that mean the most to you is, frankly, what the holidays are all about.