121 King St, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia

Feeling Stressed During the Holidays?

By: Chinwé Williams PhD

Does the thought of holiday shopping, attending various social gatherings and events fill you with more anxiety and dread than joy and anticipation? If so, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, nearly nine in 10 (89%) Americans report excessive stress at this time of year primarily due to anticipating family conflicts, pressure to purchase gifts, and missing loved ones.

Between baking, decorating, shopping and wrapping, it can be difficult to manage stress —and easy to neglect yourself—this time of year. When we don’t feel so merry and bright during the holidays, we can quickly find ourselves beginning to stew in resentments and unnecessary pressure to make everything come together perfectly. 

If you feel overwhelmed—or just need a reset—here are a few strategies to make your mental and emotional health the priority this holiday season: 

Let go of the fantasy of what the holidays should be. This tip tends to surprise the people who know me well, because by nature, I’m wired for optimism and hope. Hope is great and even helpful, but so is facing reality about certain situations. While we hope time with our families will be magical, our physiology reminds us that it hasn’t been. Then, in some ways, it then braces us for that reality. The same group of humans we’re excited to celebrate with may elicit difficult family dynamics that can evoke feelings of fight, flight or freeze in our nervous system. Rather than expecting a time of wonder and awe this Christmas, remind yourself of your plan to tend to your well-being, regardless of what happens at the dinner table. 

Step away and take a breath. When feeling the rise of anxiety, one self-soothing method you can try this year is to offer yourself some grace—and some space. If you’re at a holiday event and begin to feel those familiar signs of stress, quietly excuse yourself (or not) and step outside or into an empty room to calm down for a few minutes. If you are the host and begin to feel a sense of overwhelm with all of the tasks, head to your bathroom or bedroom, pause and try focusing on slowing your breath. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and slowly breathe out for a count of four. Repeat 3 more times until you regain a sense of calm. 

Notice the beauty in your environment. Another effective method for managing holiday stress is to intentionally take time to appreciate the smells, textures, sounds, and colors around you. Take a moment to focus on the smell of fresh cut flowers, or the scent of a burning candle, the taste of freshly baked Christmas cookies, the view of beautiful twinkling lights, or the soft sensation of a kiss from a sweet loved one. Experiencing the sensation and awe of something outside of yourself can be a wonderful stress-reliever. The best part of this practice? No one will even know you are doing it! But you will feel the difference.

Let go of time-consuming traditions. When hosting duties become more stressful than fun, something has to go. Think about what stressed you out the most last holiday season. Was it the baking, the cooking, entertaining, or cleaning up afterwards? Whatever it was, give yourself permission to create a new tradition. Consider a dinner party where you provide the main course and ask invitees to bring the sides and dessert, or simply go potluck. Outsource those things you detest to your guests,  including the setup and cleanup, particularly to those who are staying late or overnight. Another stress-reducer is to shorten the duration of your hosted event. Would a casual 2-hour open house party versus a formal sit down dinner work better for your nervous system? If so, have friends and family drop by for drinks, cookies and cheer during that window (perhaps 6pm-8pm) and then call it a silent night! 

Keep it moving. While the holidays are known for its hustle and bustle, we actually spend a lot of time in December being sedentary. Physical activity, in whatever form you prefer, may help boost the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. So, this season, when feeling stressed, make time for a brisk walk, run, a quick stretch, or another simple movement practice. Try to move a bit more in anticipation of the stressful  week or season. Staying physically active is one of the best stress-relievers out there. Studies show that just one session of intense exercise can help boost your mood for up to 24 hours. 

Don’t keep your thoughts and feelings wrapped up. Be attuned to how you’re feeling and recognize when stress begins to rise. Consider saying no to some holiday party invites. If you are hosting your own party, don’t be reluctant to ask family members or friends for assistance. 

Request that a good friend come a day earlier to help cook, decorate, or wrap gifts with you, and then unwind with them afterward. Turn on some music and dance to your favorite festive songs! This is a wonderful way of not only sharing the mental and physical burden of party preparation, but also a great way to connect with busy friends who either live further away or who aren’t as available throughout the year. The dancing part? Well, that’s just adding fun and movement to your body and nervous system which will help to boost your overall holiday spirit!

While the holidays can certainly increase your stress levels, they can also be a time to cultivate new relationships and strengthen old ones, which serves to support your mental and emotional well-being throughout the year. 

Wishing you a holiday filled with joy, love, and peace!

Dr. Chinwe’