Keeping Holiday Stress at Bay (or under Control)

Holiday StressFor most of us, our lives are already busy, and with the holidays come additional burdens and stressors, from social obligations and cooking, to juggling out-of-town guests and kids on vacation. Stress drains us physically and mentally, making it that much harder to get enough sleep and maintain our exercise routines. Overeating is also common, especially when stress is combined with the many temptations of special foods and beverages. By thinking through your personal approach to stress, you can call on internal and external resources to help you enjoy the winter holiday season.

Your Personal Stress Response

When you feel stressed, your body undergoes a physiological change—your “fight or flight” response has been activated. Your heart rate increases, your muscles feel tense, you feel on alert. In essence, your body is giving you extra energy so you can deal with a perceived challenge.

Take a minute to consider how you personally tend to respond to stress. If you have a sweet tooth, think ahead about how you can limit your access to sweets. If you tend to stop moving and become sedentary, can you find an exercise buddy and schedule weekly walks? Even short bursts of activity, like walking around the block or taking the stairs, can make a difference. If your weak spot is not getting enough sleep, try setting a go-to-sleep alarm on your smart phone. When it goes off, begin to ready your brain for sleep by turning from brain-busy activities to calmer ones.

Setting Expectations and Limits

Our outlook and expectations also can play a central role in how we manage the holidays. Picture this: Your neighbors are throwing a party, and they’ve asked you to bring all the appetizers. But you have gifts to wrap and want to spend time with your family baking. While you feel extremely overwhelmed and prefer to relax at home with your family, you feel a sense of obligation to please others.

In this and other stressful holiday situations, try these stress-busters:

  • Think about your expectations. Be honest about what you want, and be realistic about what is possible. Then, try these two rules: Keep it simple. Don’t overcommit. Remember that you are not superman or superwoman; scale back your commitments. Don’t let “supposed to do” take the place of what you would like to do or what brings you enjoyment.
  • Accept people as they are. Don’t expect others to behave as you would like them to. This is a recipe for disappointment, if not misery. Recognize that the people in your life will celebrate the holidays as they want to and not the way you want them to. So don’t try to change or control them.
  • Remember, even the best-laid plans can go awry. This goes back to expectations. Expect that some problems are possible or even likely—inclement weather, delayed guests, an overcooked dinner. Try to approach unexpected challenges with an open mind, patience, creativity or a sense of humor.
  • Take a few slow breaths. Deliberately slowing your breathing for a minute or two calms your body a bit so that you can pause, think more clearly and choose an effective response to the situation.
  • Talk to someone. Discussing how you feel with a trusted supporter can increase your resilience. You will often find you are not the only one experiencing a particular problem.

For some people and situations, stress levels can be too high to manage alone. If you are experiencing insomnia, chronic anxiety, panic attacks, or two weeks or more of low mood or lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed, talk with your primary care. They can refer you to a specialist to help manage your stress.

Remember, the holidays are short, as is life. Make the most of them!