With the holiday season in full gear, it’s common for many people to complain about being stressed out and anxious as they hurry to put up their decorations, cross all the gifts off their lists and make those last-minute dishes for holiday potlucks.
You may think that feeling stressed over holidays is normal, but stress can lead to significant health issues, including aches and pains, headaches, a weakened immune system and more.
Luckily, there are many things you can do to make this a more peaceful, joyful time of year. Here are 11 practical suggestions to reduce your stress during the holidays:
1. Identify What You Are Stressed About
Soula Souflakis, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says one of the most important things you can do is try to identify exactly what you feel stressed and anxious about so you are better able to face the problems head on. For example, is your stress related to finances? Seeing difficult family members? Feeling like you don’t have enough time to get everything done?
Once you identify the overwhelming trigger that is causing distress, Souflakis recommends disclosing it to a trusted individual such as a good friend or therapist and give yourself an opportunity to process it.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others
In this age of social media, Souflakis says it can be easy to start comparing ourselves to others and to feel stressed that we’re coming up short. But Souflakis says you can feel a lot more calm and inner peace when you remember that the holidays aren’t a competition. You don’t have to send out holiday cards, or make 12 dozen kinds of cookies, or put up an amazing light display just because other people do.
“The burden of keeping up with those around us tends to decrease when we remind ourselves what the holidays truly mean. When the world around us is pressuring and overstimulating us with ‘must do’s’ and ‘shoulds’ then our minds develop overstimulating triggers of anxiety about self-worth. When the comparison of demands decrease, the enjoyment of the holidays will naturally increase,” Souflakis says.
3. Learn how to set boundaries
A big source of holiday stress can come from saying yes to things instead of saying no. For example, if you’re feeling stressed about finances this year, you may need to tell your family members that you are going to opt out of giving gifts, or you may need to explain that you’ll be giving less this year. Or you may have to tell friends that you just don’t have time to attend their holiday party this year, or that you won’t be bringing cookies to the office holiday party. “You have every right as an individual to kindly decline an engagement that does not fit your schedule, your interest, or your emotional capacity,” Souflakis says. “When we do things against our own free will, or at times, unspoken pressure, we end up feeling disappointment and resentment.”
Souflakis says if you are planning on opting out of a family gathering or setting other boundaries, it’s important to do it sooner rather than later. “When you create those boundaries it’s important to set the tone early on. If we set the tone in a respectful, honorable way, people will respect that,” she says.
4. Don’t set too high of expectations
Isroel Feiler, a mental health counselor at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says another key part of maintaining your sanity during the holidays is being realistic that everything won’t be perfect. For example, if you have a difficult relationship with a certain family member, don’t expect them to be different just because it’s the holidays. Instead, expect that they’re going to act just the way they always do. “The holidays don’t change reality. If anything, they enhance reality,” Feiler says.
Feiler also recommends planning ahead for how you will deal with uncomfortable interactions or disappointments. “It’s good to prepare emotionally for the holidays,” he says. “As the old saying goes, ‘Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.’”
5. Walk away from difficult conversations
Does spending time with your family stress you out? Remember that one way to reduce tension between family members is to simply choose not to participate in arguments. If someone has a different opinion than you do about something, you don’t have to set them straight or have the last word. You can simply try to ignore them. Or, if it’s really upsetting, you can choose to walk into another room. “If you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s ok to walk away,” Souflakis says.
6. Give back to others
One great antidote to stress is to do something good for someone else. “The holidays are a time where we’re waiting to get, and that can be a detrimental state,” Feiler says. “Instead, make it more about ‘What can I give?’” For example, when you’re headed to a holiday party, you can volunteer to pitch in with the dishes, or offer to bring something to the meal. Or you can donate food or toys to a local charity, or spend time volunteering. Getting out and helping others will get you out of your head and remind you what this holiday is all about.
Whenever you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, a really easy way to calm down is to take a few minutes out of your day to meditate. Try sitting in a chair with both feet on the floor and set your timer for about five minutes. Close your eyes and breathe in and out at a natural pace. Try to empty your mind of all thoughts and just focus on your breath. See if you can concentrate on staying in the present moment, being away of how your back feels against the chair, how your feet feel against the floor, etc. You’ll be amazed how much more refreshed you’ll feel in no time.
8. Try breathing techniques
Another way to reduce stress and calm your mind is to spend a few minutes practicing breathing techniques. Start by taking a long, slow breath through your nose. Count to three and then exhale slowly, relaxing all of your muscles as you do.
Another breathing technique you can try is the 4-7-8 technique. Simply sit up straight or lie flat on the floor and put your hand on your belly and another hand on your chest. Take a slow, deep breath from your belly and inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale slowly for a count eight. After a few rounds of this, you should feel very calm and relaxed.
9. Talk to someone
As a society, we are conditioned to think we have to feel joy and cheer during the holidays. And if you’re not feeling happy and joyful, you may feel like something is wrong with you. But Souflakis says it’s ok to feel however you feel during the holidays. “We have a right to our feelings,” Souflakis says. “If you’re feeling negative feelings, talk to people about it. Reach out to a confidant, a spiritual leader, a friend, a therapist, whatever it may be.”
10. Stick to your routine
Our schedules during the holidays are always crazy, but Souflakis says sticking to a regular routine can help ground you and make you feel calmer. That means trying to maintain your regular bedtime, get enough sleep, continue your exercise routine and eating healthy meals as much as possible. “When you falter from your routines over the holiday break and go back to work or school, many times, you’ll find yourself feeling dysregulated, along with feeling a strong sense of detachment from yourself, and it takes a while to get back to the swing of things. When you stay on your routine as much as possible, you decrease the probability of detachment and dysregulation,” she says.
11. Do some self-care
Lastly, to maintain your serenity during the holidays, it’s key to take some time for yourself. Schedule an appointment with an acupuncturist or chiropractor, take time for a massage, or even make a point to go outside for a walk or take a long hot bath at the end of a long day. The more you can take care of yourself, the better you’ll be able to take care of other people in your life as well!