Woman sits by Christmas tree full of stress.

Taking the Stress Out of the Holidays

The holidays are officially upon us. Family gatherings, holiday pageants and endless commitments fill our calendars, and it’s enough to make the party planners and family tradition keepers among us frantic and frazzled.

Some years it’s tempting to call the whole thing off in an attempt to banish the almost inevitable stress before it starts. Before you tell the kids Christmas is canceled, however, we’ve got some ideas for how to both maintain your sanity and keep the holidays enjoyable.

Ross Teemant, senior director of behavioral health outpatient services for Texas Health Resources, said the first step is to plan for something fun and then get moving sooner rather than later.

“Start planning early and if you haven’t yet started planning for this year, get started now — and then start earlier next year,” he said. “Be realistic with your schedule and learn to say no. If you only say yes to the things you truly want to do, you won’t feel as bitter or overwhelmed. Finally, include some time in the busyness of the holidays to volunteer your time to help others. It’s a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.”

Behavioral Health Clinical Educator Barbara Alderete says that even though our stress during the holidays may be positive because it adds variety and excitement to our lives, it’s stress nonetheless.

“Be discerning and decide on one or possibly two holidays to focus on rather than trying to host or do a major commitment for all of the holidays,” she explained. “Include activities and commitments that are most important, but limit the number.

“Sometimes families can add in a ritual or event each year but never drop anything off of the list. Keep in mind that what is meaningful for your family this year may not be next year. So, rather than adding more ‘have-to’ events to the list, change out what you will do each year.”

While we may feel pressure to cram every holiday party and office gift swap into an already busy schedule, Teemant says it can take a toll on our health in tangible ways. We may not even realize we’ve overdone it until it’s too late.

Some of the physical warning signs that we’ve taken on too much may include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or backaches
  • Increased anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Increased heart rate and/or blood pressure

Additionally, behavioral changes may include:

  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Difficulty with attention to details
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Changes in exercise habits
  • Negative mood/attitude
  • Trouble concentrating or expressing ideas
  • Feelings of urgency or constant pressure to be in “go mode”
  • Decrease in satisfaction with the holiday season and tasks at hand
  • Increase in alcohol consumption

Many people look forward to the holiday season with anticipation all year long, but others come to dread the winter, as it can usher in what is known as the holiday blues. Teemant explained there are many reasons one might feel this way.

“The holiday blues can be caused by feelings of stress, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, fatigue and financial stress,” he said. “People may also experience unrealistic expectations or be disappointed by the over commercialization of the holiday season. Past holiday memories can also be painful for some people, especially as they relate to family and close friends.”

Setting realistic goals about your time, finances and expectations for yourself and others can set you on the road to success. Alderete recommended positive self-talk to help keep stress at manageable levels.

“Remind yourself of what is important such as spending time with family, experiencing the meaning of the holiday to you or building memories,” she suggests. “You may also need to get a positive inner dialogue going about not being perfect. We realistically can’t even be ‘good’ at everything, so just choose an area to give time and energy to, and then reassure yourself about the areas you have let go of. Also, remember that family problems do not go away for the holidays. You can only do your best or your part in making the relationships work.”

Teemant suggested trying to remember the holidays don’t have to be perfect or exactly the same every year.

“As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well,” he said. “So don’t set yourself up for disappointment by comparing today with the ‘good old days.’ Choose a few traditions to hold on to, but be open to creating new ones.”

Teemant also shared some practical tips for keeping stress to a minimum when it’s crunch time.

  • Make a “to-do list” for the day and prioritize the most important tasks. Write the list on one page so it can be carried with you.
  • Schedule the more demanding tasks during the times when you are the most alert and energetic.
  • Schedule an easy job after a difficult one or a long task after a short one, which can help you stay motivated.
  • Make time for breaks, including time alone to recharge and time with family and friends.
  • Take a walk, listen to soothing music and reduce stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

Red and green may be the traditional colors of Christmas, but Teemant said there are ways to hang on to more green and stay out of the red, financially speaking.

“Make a budget and keep track of your holiday spending,” he said. “Overspending can lead to depression when the bills arrive. Extra expenses that weren’t budgeted for ahead of time can lead to lingering stress and depression, long after the holidays are over. Seek out activities that are free, like window shopping or take a drive to look at holiday decorations.”

Above all, Teemant and Alderete recommend that we choose to actively focus on the positives of the holiday season.

“Be kind to yourself and to your family, expecting that we all are going to be imperfect,” Alderete said. “Don’t get caught up in the commercial or extreme achievement wave where everything has to be gourmet and homemade. Focus on the holidays as constructive to the health of your family rather than being picture perfect.”

Remember, there is meaning in the holidays, including love, sharing, peace on earth, making time for others, giving instead of receiving and spreading good cheer. And as Teemant said, “With a little planning and some positive thinking, you may find that you enjoy the holidays this year more than you thought you would.”

What to read more about how to nip your stress in the bud? Read our article with Five Tips to Reduce Stress.

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