Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Managing Holiday Stress, or "The Twelve Coping Skills of Christmas"

The holidays are often set aside as a time of joy and peace, of reflection and gratitude. But many people report that the pressure that comes with the holidays makes this the most stressful time of the year. So here are some tips to help you have a happy, healthy holiday season.

1. Set realistic expectations.
In an effort to make the holidays “perfect,” we can run ourselves ragged and accumulate more debt than we would like. This time of year, the media is full of images of the “perfect holiday,” and it is so easy to turn those images into an expectation. Try and avoid the trap of perfectionism. Instead, try telling yourself that the holidays will be wonderful and imperfect all at once.

2. Reach out for help if you need it.
Many people seem to have a desire to be superhuman, and to do everything without any assistance from anyone. Not only is this destructive to your own mental health, it robs your loved ones of a chance to be more connected to you. Instead of “going it alone,” ask for assistance.
Sometimes the holidays can get you down...

3. Acknowledge feelings.
There is a lot of pressure for holidays to be joyful and happy time. But this is also the darkest time of the year here in the northern hemisphere, and many people react to the seasonal cycles with increased depression. Further, the experience of holiday emotions may vary. Some people may be sad; others may be grieving and may miss loved ones. It is OK to feel whatever is going on for you at any time. You are not “supposed to” feel any particular way. Just acknowledge what you are feeling, and remember that you are allowed to have whatever feelings you are actually having.

4. Set aside differences.
One of the major stressors this time of year can be gatherings with other people with whom we do not get along. To reduce stress for yourself, try and set aside your differences. For example, if you and your brother-in-law argue about politics every year, maybe this is the year to call a truce. If you know that you disagree with someone about politics or religion (or whatever) it is a good idea to just let that difference be. Instead, try and connect over things you have in common. If you really feel you need to address something, bring it up at another time of the year, when nerves are not so frazzled.

5. Practice gratitude.
Taking time each day to be aware of what you have that you are grateful for is clinically proven to help reduce depression and anxiety, and to improve overall happiness. Try listing five things you are grateful for each night before you go to sleep. For many people, the holiday season is the perfect time to begin a gratitude practice.

6. Make a plan for difficult situations, and stick to it.
Let's say you're hosting the big family dinner this year, and in the past it's been about as complicated as planning a trip to the moon. Or, let's say you have to spend time with family members who make you uncomfortable. Whatever the challenge, you will be less stressed if you have a plan before you go into the situation. So sit down and make a plan of what is going to happen, and then stick to the plan. Don't change the plan at the last minute to add “just one more thing.”

Further, remember the first item on this list: Resist the urge to strive for perfection in your plans. Acknowledge that you are going to plan a good event, but one that is realistic and achievable. And then do what you plan.

7. Say “No” more often.
This is a great season to practice setting limits. If it is just too much work to pick up some cookies on the way to the kid's holiday concert, then say so. You just can't make it to that one more party? Tell them that you won't be there. And remember, you don't need explanations: “No” is a complete sentence.

8. Take some deep breaths.
This advice has been around for a long time, and for good reason: It works. Stop whatever you are doing and take 10 slow, deep breaths. See what happens if you do this several times a day. Deep breathing slows down our heart-rate and sends a message to our mind and body that “Everything is OK.”

9. Take some time for yourself.
During the holiday season we can find ourselves in a whirlwind of activity, seemingly without any rest. Before you get caught up in that, plan out some time just for you. Maybe a couple of hours of reading, or a massage, or a trip to your favorite restaurant. Make some time for yourself so you can “recharge.” And bonus points: Refuse to feel guilty about it.

10. Get enough sleep.
'Tis the season for competing demands on our time. Holiday parties can run late, and we can stay up late at night baking or wrapping... All of this is a recipe for poor sleep. Our ability to cope with stress is compromised when we aren't sleeping enough. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep each and every night. (Oh, and parents? Make sure your kids get enough sleep, too.)

11. Watch what you eat and drink.
A friend of mine describes this time of year as “pastry season,” because there are more cookies, cakes, pies, candies and other assorted sweets on offer this year than any other time. You will also likely be offered heavy meals, full of rich food. All of this can be a wonderful gustatory experience. At the same time, when our bodies are not feeling well or are not well-fueled, our ability to cope with stress is decreased.

The holidays are also a time of year for celebratory beverages—alcoholic and otherwise. And while alcohol may seem like a good way to relieve stress, its effects are short-term, and the consequences that come with from the decisions we make when intoxicated are long-term.

While parties and feasts are a part of the holidays, it is a good idea to remember moderation.

12. Get some exercise.
Physical activity is one of the best ways we have to cope with stress. During the holiday season we are often so busy that our trips to the gym or walks around the neighborhood often get cut from our schedule. Remember that this time of year, taking care of yourself is even more important than ever. Schedule that gym time or that walk in your calendar, and treat it as an appointment you cannot break.

Hopefully these tips will improve your experience of the holiday season. Remember to take care of yourself. And personally, I wish you and yours all the best this year and every year!

For further reading:
An APA summary of research on holiday stress:

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