How to Gear Up for the Holiday Season by Downshifting

The shopping. The entertaining. The activities. In a season of giving, many have found that the person they forget to include most often is themselves.

But more and more people are seeing the value in downshifting—taking time for some self-care, paring the holiday routines down, and focusing on what is important to their immediate families.

We asked several Dallas-Fort Worth area residents two questions: How do you handle the stress that the holiday season brings, and what do you do to downshift?

Overwhelmingly, the answers gravitated toward simplifying the holiday routine and going with routines and gifts that were more heartfelt and less commercial. In various ways large and small, a less-is-more maxim is a common thread in their replies.

For Shannon Pinkston of Dallas, a family decision to draw names for gift giving proved to be less stressful for everyone.

“Years ago, we started drawing names instead of buying gifts for everybody in the family,” she says. “Then we changed it to where it has to be something handmade, heartfelt, or from a wish list, to cut down on returns and things not wanted.”

For Dallas working mom Renee Strickland, her decision to nix Christmas cards not only saved her family money but also cut a big to-do off her holiday list.

“Between scheduling the photo shoot, writing the letter, getting the stamps, and tracking down snail mail addresses, it was by far the most expensive and time-consuming activity of the holiday,” she says. “I stopped when we spent over $700 in one year.

“I love looking back on the ones we wrote, and part of me still regrets not continuing the tradition, but time and money won out,” Strickland says, adding that thanks to Facebook, her family can still send their season’s greetings to friends and family with a click of a button.

“I refuse to try to produce the same 24 dishes that we had on the table for holidays when I was a kid,” Amanda Johnson says. “I only do a meat and three veggies and a dessert. If company is coming, I assign them a dish.”

This simpler menu, she says, allows her time to enjoy her guests.

“I also stock my house with lots of store-bought snacks (hummus and veggies, a cheese ball, nuts and olives) and let people graze at will before and after big meals so I’m not trying to crank out three meals that day,” she continues. “I work out to stay chill.”

Kennedale photographer and mother of three Ann Beck recommends giving yourself a break when it comes to expectations.

“Lower the bar of expectations,” she says. “Nobody cares about what you’re doing or not doing as much as you think they do; they’re all just trying to survive like you and worried about their own stuff.”

She also recommends doing what matters to you—and spending your time and energy on that.

“I love holiday cards and put a ridiculous amount of effort into our card, but could care less about yard decor,” she says.

Beck also says it feels good to extend that same grace to other families who may have different priorities.

“Remember to give others the same break you give yourself. They don’t have a tree up? Oh well, they probably are going to cook some amazing homemade cookies,” she says. “Even if you celebrate the same holiday as someone else, the odds are slim you celebrate the same way.

“Let others do their own thing and be happy. Enjoy your holiday the way you want to and let yourself just enjoy it. Wouldn’t it be boring if it was the same as everyone else’s?”

Kendra Woods, McKinney, Texas, agrees.

“I cut down all stress years ago because I don’t make a huge fuss about holidays,” she explains. “They’re fun and all but families fighting over wanting you to be here and there for a few hours in one day is just too much. I make a big deal over it for just us but that’s it.”

Both Georgia Nichols, Dallas, and Andrea Perkins, McKinney, said they also have learned the benefits of managing expectations.

“I stopped giving in to the pressures of traveling for Christmas,” Nichols said. “We prefer to stay home.”

“I’ve stopped hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Perkins said. “I used to host my family every year, but it just got to be too much drama and too much work.”

Many of the people we talked to mentioned that taking the time to plan in advance was also key to reducing stress during the holidays.

“Delegate as much as you can, either to others or to your past self—get it done earlier than you need to before the crazy rush of the end of the season—so you can be focused on the important stuff,” Beck suggests.

Sarah Montgomery, a Dallas attorney and mother of two, agrees. “Take care of things early, before the holiday craziness sets in,” she says. “My gift shopping is mostly done, for instance.”

Dallas moms Taylor Wells and Toya Harris said they solicit wish lists from relatives and friends about what they would like, to cut out the guesswork.

“Buy everything online—if you don’t send a link, you’re getting a gift card,” Wells said.

“I have nieces and nephews send Amazon wish lists,” Harris said. “Pick something off the list, click and done! We’re both happy.”

Sara Hall-Paulausky, Dallas, says her family plans months in advance when it comes to gift giving. “In July we start a list and each month we cross off five things,” she explains. “By the time the holidays are here, the majority of everything is done.”

McKinney moms Catherine Dierschke, Jackie Miller and Evelyn Smith said that their families began making the holidays less about tangible gifts and more about family time and meaningful experiences.

“We focus mostly on family time and less on Christmas events like the shopping mall Santa or various community holiday events and parties,” Dierschke says. “We will do one church event this year and that’s probably it.

“We also keep the presents to a minimum—in my nuclear family, everyone has three packages under the tree, and it usually follows something you need or wear, something to read and something you want.”

“I have a strict rule of one gift per person and one experience, like a toy and a trip to the zoo or aquarium,” Miller agrees.

“Kids get three gifts each. No more, no less,” Smith says. “The rest of the focus is on faith and food. It helps that we have an awesome church we love.”

That focus on what matters to their loved ones and themselves isn’t the only way many downshift during the holidays. Margie Jostes, McKinney, says that in addition to managing expectations, she also takes some time for herself.

“I always make sure to treat myself, even if it’s a special coffee while out running errands,” she says. “And I love cute paper and notebooks for all my list making. It’s the little things.”

For Karen Pruett, Dallas, turning her attention to Christmas preparations she finds soothing is also her “me time.”

“I love to bake, so I put on Christmas music and bake from Thanksgiving on,” she says. “Most things freeze well, so I freeze cookies and such for later. That way, I can easily put out six (or whatever) types of cookies at once.”

April Morris, Dallas, takes advantage of babysitting for some self-care during the holidays.

“We go to both grandparents over the holidays,” she says. “I don’t feel one bit guilty going off and getting my nails done or a massage, or just going out for coffee by myself and letting the grandparents babysit.”

Dallas mom Melissa Friday’s holiday schedule and work schedule sometimes combine to be a stressful time, so she plans her self-care for after the holidays.

“I always plan a relaxing beach vacation right after Christmas so I have something to look forward to,” she says.

Research agrees with all of these ideas. Downshifting—a Blue Zones Project Power 9 tenet—has been one of the nine concepts attributed to longevity, specifically in those regions of the globe where people routinely live to 100.

“What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress,” Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner writes. “Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.”

Experts agree. The American Psychological Association recommends the following for managing holiday stress and downshifting for the season:

  • Strengthen social connections — nurture strong, supportive relationships.
  • Initiate conversations about the season — discuss family traditions with your children, talk about why your family chooses certain traditions and not others.
  • Set expectations — set expectations for yourself, your family and your children about the holiday season.
  • Keep things in perspective — remember the holiday season is a short part of a whole year. Use that perspective to manage fears and anxieties.
  • Take care of yourself.

“It should be a journey, not a destination,” Dallas resident Amy Severson says of the holiday season. “If you’re short on time, it’s legit to use the internet. Some of the best impromptu gifts I’ve ever found were at CVS … I hope.

“I shop to please myself. That is how I make it pleasurable and take care of myself,” she adds. “So, someone is likely to get a $1.49 out-of-print paperback from Half Price Books, or a vintage Breyer’s horse from a visit to a local antique store, or a handmade shawl made while binge-watching all the previous seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’ while preparing for the new season.”

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