Are the holidays the season of excitement or a time for anxiety and frustration?
Here are expert tips to get you past the stress and into the festive spirit.
Get adequate sleep
It’s no secret that our bodies crave rest; fail to get enough, and you’ll have some nasty symptoms. Not only does adequate rest—at least seven to eight hours per night—recharge your body for the day ahead, it also gives your nervous system a chance to wind down and reset as well. For those who suffer from anxiety symptoms, a lack of sleep can make you much more anxious. No one wants that around the holidays, warns Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the co-author of Teenage As A Second Language. She tells Reader’s Digest, “We must all keep in mind that the holidays can be quite overwhelming as well as exciting. Because we are going to be expending a lot of energy during the holidays we must take care of ourselves. That way, we are less likely to become physically sick and emotionally overwhelmed during the holiday season.” Go ahead and go to bed early—chances are you’ll be better able to handle whatever comes your way in the morning.
Give your body the boosts it needs
The typical American diet can leave you short on nutrients your body needs to function at its fullest potential, and sometimes it needs a boost that food is not providing. During stressful times such as the holidays or busy seasons, it’s important to pay close attention to cues your body is sending about its status. Supplements such as magnesium (almost 80 percent of the population is deficient), zinc, and fish oil can deliver the nutrients your body needs to keep running efficiently. Magnesium helps to relax muscles and decrease anxiety. Zinc will help to boost your immune system during the colder months, and the omega-3 oils in fish oil are powerful anti-inflammatories that provide an overall sense of well-being.
Give yourself the gift of self-care
In the midst of the seasonal rush, it’s easy to forget about your own health. Make time for a daily routine—even if it’s just 15 minutes—of doing something relaxing. Whether that’s pulling out the yoga mat, steeping a cup of your favorite herbal tea, or simply reading a good book, the time you give yourself out of your busy day will make a huge difference in your outlook. Kim Fredrickson, a marriage and family therapist and author of the new book Give Your Kids A Break: Parenting With Compassion For You and Your Children, agrees. She advises, “Treat yourself with compassion. It’s important to treat yourself kindly regarding all the extra pressures and activities you’re dealing with.” She continues, “Come up with a plan to take care of yourself as you head into the holidays. Try getting enough sleep, eat as healthy as possible, take time for a daily walk, and set things aside that can wait until January or February.”
Accept what you can control and release the rest
If you struggle with anxious feelings, you may also have control issues. So when the to-do list becomes overwhelming, that’s the time to step back and assess what is reasonable and what you have to let go of. If you’re hosting a dinner and you know that gluten-free Aunt Martha will complain that she can’t have the stuffing, kindly suggest that she might want to bring a side she’ll be able to enjoy. Fredrickson recommends making a list of the things you feel are top priorities, to keep your focus on what matters most. She says, “What’s important? Think about what is really important as you approach the holidays. Make sure your list includes things that are important to you, rather than only focusing on creating good experiences for your family.”
Do what you can from the comfort of home
There’s never been a better time to get things done without getting out of your pajamas. Sure, the Internet has its drawbacks, but there’s no question it’s made life easier for shopping. Tap the wonders of the web to order your groceries and gifts online. Some grocery services will deliver to your door, while some require that you pick up your order; either way, the time you’ll save is priceless. With online gift-wrapping options, it’s never been easier to have gifts sent directly to the relatives. Consider yourself a tech genius this season and eliminate your to-do list worries.
Delegate the details
If you’re facing a panicked rush to get things done, why not hand off some of the to-do lists to your spouse? If you know you’ll never be able to wrap every gift on time or schedule the carpet cleaning you’ve been putting off, recruit help. The same goes for holiday meals. While it’s true that the host often provides much of the main meal, why not ask people on the guest list to provide a side or dessert? Dr. Greenberg advises, “There are no prizes for doing everything on your own. Delegate. Remember people should come together during the holidays and help each other, right?”
Know your limits and respect them
Do memories of holidays past leave you shuddering with a sense of dread? If so, it’s time to learn from past mistakes, and vow to do things differently this year. If hosting the holiday festivities is simply too much of a strain on you or your family, ask someone else to take it on this year. Stress and anxiety can make even the most well-intentioned hostess less than jolly, and chances are good that there’s someone in your family who would love the chance to show off their culinary skill. Dr. Greenberg tells Reader’s Digest, “Know your limits. If it is difficult to be with your family for too long before you start getting irritable with each other, then set a time limit in advance. Believe me, you will be grateful that you did this! Do not expect that this year your family will get along perfectly and that old grudges will be forgotten. Unfortunately, we tend to regress when we are with our families during the holidays and old issues from years ago rear their heads.”
Make time to move
While it might seem counter-intuitive to add exercise to your daily routine during a time of extra activity, it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Activity reduces blood pressure and stress, and a short walk around the block can really go the distance in making the holiday grind more bearable. If walking isn’t something you enjoy, why not try yoga, and let your breath carry you away from it all? Exercise doesn’t have to produce heavy breathing and sweat to count—so find something that gently allows your body to expend its extra energy, and go with it.
Prep your way to less stress
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Fail to plan? Plan to fail.” That’s a little harsh, but there’s no question that having a holiday-prep plan will help ensure the success of your season. Take a look at your seasonal to-do list and make notes about the things that can be taken care of in advance. Can you bake and freeze some dinner or dessert items now? How about sending out the invitations early, with your requests of what others should bring for the meal included? Some things don’t need to wait to be done until the week before the big day. Take advantage of the time you have, and take action now.
Maintain realistic expectations of yourself and others
Family relationships are complicated. Add in holiday pressures and heightened expectations for a perfect holiday, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Instead of expecting a perfect holiday staged by Hallmark, keep your vision of the day realistic. That one relative who really knows how to push your buttons will not magically become a joy to be around just because it’s a special day. Accept the likely reality for what it is, and make the best of it. Dr. Greenberg cautions that you should rein in your expectations—especially around the holidays. “It is crucial to keep expectations at a reasonable level. If we set the bar too high and expect family get-togethers or other celebrations to be perfect, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.” Who needs the extra stress of having a perfect day?
Keep healthy boundaries in place
Some of your family or friends may see the holidays as an excuse for excess, indulgence, or rude behavior. Though more family time might lead you to have an extra glass of wine, Dr. Greenberg says this isn’t the best option to soothe frazzled nerves. She warns, “Keep the drinking of alcohol to a minimum. Too much alcohol leads to saying the wrong thing, behaving in a clumsy manner, and unintentionally bruising the feelings of others. It also leads to embarrassing yourself and your family.” Everyone wants an enjoyable day, but it shouldn’t cost you your sanity or healthy limitations.
Make a date with yourself
“The holidays can be a chaotic time with friends and family and it’s OK to schedule some alone time,” says Prakash Masand MD, a psychiatrist from Duke University and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence. “Ask your spouse to watch the kids for an hour and go to the spa, or go hit a bucket of golf balls. Seeking some solitude is both healthy and necessary to reduce stress.”
Hit “pause” on family arguments
Old tensions, political differences, blended families with ex-spouses and new loves—for a lot of people, getting together with extended family to celebrate holidays is a mixture of good and bad. If tensions and disagreements arise, consider pressing pause, at least for now. “Holidays are not the time to resolve family conflicts,” says Dr. Masand. “Many individuals use the family holidays to try to resolve longstanding conflicts with family members often with disastrous consequences, particularly when alcohol is involved. Leave addressing those issues to a later time in a one-to-one conversation.”
Do your shopping in short bursts
In an interesting 2016 study, researchers strapped emotion-tracking devices to 100 people and sent them holiday shopping for an hour. The findings? People’s heart rates increased by an average of 33 percent while shopping, about the same increase seen in someone who’s running a marathon. A majority became fatigued after just half an hour. “There’s so much to do: buying presents, cooking, decorating and more. Saving it all for the last minute will raise your stress,” says Dr. Masand. “Start a few weeks ahead of time and do a little at a time.”
The number-one stressor during the holidays is time, a survey by the American Psychological Association found. A full two-thirds of people surveyed often or sometimes feel worried about having time to fit everything in, including family visits, cooking, shopping, decorating, and working. If you find yourself feeling stretched thin every holiday season, why not plan to do a little bit less this year? Jot down a quick list of all the parties, activities, and traditions you “need” to fit in and then prioritize. The ones that end up near the bottom? They’re optional.
Stick to a budget
Money is the second-biggest source of holiday stress (“time” is number one), according to the American Psychological Association. That’s why Dr. Masand suggests making a holiday budget and sticking to it. “Every parent wants to buy that perfect holiday gift for their child, but big-ticket items can take a toll on your wallet and your stress level,” he says. If you exchange gifts with extended friends and family, “consider a grab bag gift exchange where each person buys only one gift to alleviate the stress of having to get something for everyone.” Of course, gifts aren’t the only expenses of the season—there’s also food. “Let others help,” says Dr. Masand. “Don’t feel like you have to be the hero of the holiday season. Ask each person to bring a dish to dinner, make decorating a family activity where the kids help out.”
Go store-bought instead of homemade
Do you always bring the pie for the holiday meal, always homemade? If this year has you feeling overwhelmed or overworked, consider giving yourself the gift of time and buy one instead. Store-bought or cafe-bought desserts can be just as enjoyable, especially if you’re not stressed out and exhausted when you eat them! Try this top-pick frozen apple pie or check out this Chicago Tribune review of sweet potato, pecan, and apple pies from grocery stores like Walmart, Jewel, and Target.
Expect some bad along with the good
In a recent survey, 41 percent of Americans admitted to working too hard to have a “perfect” holiday season. “Expect things to go wrong,” says Dr. Masand. “Your son may hate his Christmas gift. Your daughter might get sick. You may overcook the ham. The point is things will go wrong. Appreciate the season for the time spent with loved ones and create new memories, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Draw firm boundaries between work and family
Many people have to work regular schedules in the days leading up to the holidays—those in the travel industry, retail, hospitality, and food services may have to work even more than usual. Other than requesting time off as far in advance as possible, those work schedules can’t necessarily be controlled. What can be are your boundaries when you’re not at work. Thirty-four percent of people in an American Psychological Association survey say they experience significant stress worrying that work obligations will impede on their holiday celebrations. So when you’re off the clock, stay there. Make it clear that you can’t respond to texts or emails on your days off, and don’t let yourself feel pressured into filling in for co-workers who ask to swap shifts.
Look out for the holiday blues
Those of us who have lost loved ones or are facing other difficult life situations may feel especially sad during this time of year when everyone is supposed to be jolly. Don’t ignore these feelings of grief or sadness, say the mental health experts at the Mayo Clinic. Not only is it OK to express these feelings during this time of “cheer,” it’s healthier to do that than to ignore or suppress them. Learn more about what to look out for when holiday blues go too far.
Remember that ultimately, a holiday is just a day
“The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. If you find yourself feeling extremely overwhelmed by emotions, pressures, or obligations this year, try to shift your perspective by deciding what’s most important and what you want the holidays to mean to you. “The holidays are just another time of year, certainly something to mark, but not the end-all, be-all,” she says.
Focus on the good
Yes, the holidays can be stressful and difficult. But they’re also full of joy for many of us. The American Psychological Association found that 78 percent of people report feeling happy, 75 percent feel love, and 60 percent report being in high spirits this time of year. So don’t lose sight of what you enjoy most about this time of year, whether it’s the twinkling lights, music, food, or fellowship.