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Managing Holiday Stress: Tips for Mental Wellness

It's the time of year when we celebrate and get together with loved ones. For many people, though, this can also be the most stressful time of year. Finding the perfect gifts, cooking the perfect meal, and hosting the perfect party can take a toll on our mental health.

What is stress?

We all experience stress from time to time. As a response to danger, it is our body's way of protecting itself. When we are stressed, our bodies release hormones that help us fight or flee. A prolonged period of stress, however, can negatively impact our mental and physical health.

What are the signs of holiday stress?

Symptoms of holiday stress vary from person to person. The following symptoms are common:

  • Anxiety or feeling overwhelmed.

  • Sleep problems.

  • Appetite changes.

  • Mood swings or irritability.

  • Having trouble concentrating.

  • Activities that you once enjoyed are no longer of interest to you.

How can you manage holiday stress?

To help you cope with holiday stress, here are some tips:

1. Be realistic with yourself and with others.

There can be a lot to do during the holiday season, including parties and meetings at the end of the year. Write down what you expect of yourself, what others expect from you, and what your responsibilities are for the holidays to help manage stress. Putting them on a calendar will give you an idea of how the months will unfold.

“There is an old saying, ‘You can please some of the people all the time, and you can please all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time,’” says Adnan Arif, MD, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine. “Keep that in mind and set realistic goals and expectations for your family get-togethers, obligations and gift giving.”

Take a deep breath, relax, and realize that not everything needs to be perfect.

2. Set boundaries.

It's okay to say no to a few or all of your holiday commitments. As a result, some stress will be relieved.

It may be a good idea to share your to-do list with other family members as well. You can't do everything yourself, after all. So, don't be afraid to ask family and friends for help.

3. Connect with loved ones.

You should spend time with people who give you a sense of happiness and support. Stress can be buffered by social connections.

4. Stay focused on what matters most.

It can be hectic during the holidays because of long lines for shopping, heavy traffic, and balancing everything you have to do. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself:

  • How does this fit into the bigger picture? It is just a long grocery line - nothing more. If you're frustrated by it, remember that it is nothing more than a long grocery line. Enjoy your afternoon instead of letting it ruin it.

  • Would it be possible to use this moment of frustration as an opportunity for reflection? As the cashier rings up the customers ahead of you, think about what you are grateful for or what has gone well today.

  • Is it possible to make this moment pleasurable even though it seems stressful? Take notice of what's around you with fresh eyes and an open mind. Compliment someone or make a kind gesture to someone else.

5. Set a spending limit that you can comfortably afford and stick to it.

Mark Longsjo, LICSW, says getting swept up in the season's commercialization and marketing is very common. When the budget is tight or finding the right gift is a challenge, we may feel stressed about it.

“Advertisers will take advantage of our susceptibility,” Longsjo says, “but we have the ability to put it in perspective and remind ourselves that we are the ones creating that anxiety, and we are the ones who can reduce it.”

Don't make the mistake of thinking that giving to others is about spending money. Maintaining a budget and being transparent go hand in hand with setting realistic expectations.

To reduce the number of items everyone needs to buy, consider having a White Elephant or Secret Santa exchange. Alternatively, you can simply inform people that you cannot give them a gift this year.

“It’s an old adage, but sometimes personal gifts—like a poem, short story, or framed photo—are the best ones,” adds Longsjo.

Giving the gift of helping a neighbor, a friend, a family member, or a stranger is also a great way to give the gift of helping. It's more important to give than to receive. By focusing on others rather than ourselves, we tend to reduce our anxiety, which can be a gift to ourselves.

6. Take breaks and make time for activities that you enjoy.

Make sure you take care of your own needs. Watch a funny movie, read a book, take a nap, or go for a walk. Physical tension and stress can be relieved by laughing or even just smiling, and it relaxes the whole body.

When it comes to breaks, you might want to take some time off from social media as well. Anxiety and stress can be caused by social media.

7. Relive the happy memories with others.

During the holidays, people are also reminded of their departed loved ones, which can add to the stress.

“You don’t want to submerge yourself in grief, but it is not useful to just ignore it because you are still going to feel it,” advises Angela Drake a clinical neuropsychologist at UC Davis Health. Her recommended strategy is reminiscence therapy. “The idea is to acknowledge loss and grief but not dwell on the sad memories.

Just focus on the happy memories,” Drake said. “I encourage people to celebrate that person. Talk about them, reminisce, tell stories.”

8. Practice relaxation techniques.

In addition to yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, there are many relaxation techniques that can be used to reduce stress.

9. Maintain healthy habits.

During the holidays, it’s difficult to stick to healthy habits. Each morning, however, you can improve your decision-making by exercising for a short period of time. For extra exercise, try going for a walk or sledding with your family. Keep healthy snacks on hand throughout the season and avoid tempting, but unhealthy foods before dinner parties or celebrations.

Additionally, ensure that you:

  • Get enough sleep. A well-rested person is better able to cope with stress.

  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Stress symptoms can be exacerbated by alcohol.

  • Limit your caffeine intake. It can make you feel jittery and anxious when you consume caffeine.

10. Seek professional help if needed.

You shouldn't hesitate to seek professional assistance if you are feeling overwhelmed by holiday stress. Counseling can help you develop coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Here are some resources that can help you to manage holiday stress:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • The American Psychological Association (APA):

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. Holiday stress is common among many people. You can reduce your holiday stress levels by following the tips above.

In addition, 988 can be used to get help. By dialing or texting 988 on a smartphone, you or a loved one can receive 24 hour mental health care, 7 days a week.

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