Stress Less This Holiday Season

10 tips to help you deal with holiday pressures

A family of four bundled up in scarves and knit caps enjoys a happy moment with blurred holiday lights in the background.

by George Pratt, Clinical Psychologist

For many of us, the start of the holiday season means decorating, shopping, traveling to see family and friends — and feeling our stress levels rise. This is supposed to be a joyful, celebratory time of year. So why do so many of us feel tense, anxious, frustrated, or sad?

For starters, consider what stress is: a reaction to change that requires us to respond. The stress response, also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, is actually an automatic physical reaction that takes place in our brains.

The pituitary gland, located at the brain’s base, responds to a perceived threat by releasing hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These influence how “stressed out” we feel, as well as affect our concentration, reaction time, strength and agility.

While a little stress helps us react to situations that we perceive as threatening, too much can be, well, too much to handle.

Stress and the holidays

The very things that make the holidays special can become stressful when expectations spiral out of control. When holiday decorating, for example, becomes a challenge to have the biggest tree, the brightest yard, or the most elaborate house on the block, it becomes stressful rather than enjoyable.

Some people feel they must outdo whatever they did last year, whether it was decorating, hosting a holiday party or finding the perfect gift. Many of us feel pressure to carry on family traditions that date back over decades — for example, cooking a big holiday meal for dozens of relatives — without realizing that these traditions were started years ago when life moved at a slower pace.

Today, extended workdays, lengthy commutes, increased obligations and other constraints may simply not leave enough time to get it all done. The result? Feelings of frustration, guilt and disappointment at not being able to measure up to expectations.

Managing stress during the holidays

One of the first steps toward dealing with “Holiday Stress Syndrome” is realizing that it is not unusual. This can be a busy, high-pressure time, often made worse by the ever-present commercialism that seems to begin earlier each year.

Keep the following tips in mind to help manage stress and make it a truly enjoyable season:

  • Plan ahead. Try to plan for more time than you think you’ll need for travel, shopping, etc. Better to have extra time than not enough.
  • Create a budget and stick with it. Finances are one of the biggest sources of stress both during the holidays and after, when the credit card bills start rolling in.
  • Take care of your body. Eat well, get as much rest as you can, and take time out for stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, or even just quiet time away from the holiday hustle.
  • Exercise. With all that stress-induced adrenaline running through your body, it’s important to exercise. Get creative — take advantage of our weather to plan active holiday get-togethers that include walking, hiking or sports.
  • Keep expectations realistic. You don’t have to get the biggest tree on the block or buy more expensive presents than last year. We’ve lost the simplicity of the season. Try drawing names from a hat and buying a present only for that person, or celebrating at a special event or ski weekend as a family instead of buying gifts.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to hide sadness or anger, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Talk about it with a trusted friend or counselor. Difficult emotions or problems repressed during the rest of the year can come to the surface during the holidays; if you notice this happening, seek help from a therapist or counselor.
  • Do something for others. Take time to help a family member or neighbor, or spend an hour or two volunteering with a non-profit organization.
  • Do something for fun. Fun has been lost in our society. Play music while you’re decorating, sing carols — anything to get out of your routine.
  • Breathe! Teach yourself to breathe deeply through your abdomen instead of through your mouth. Count to five or 10 with each breath, and feel it relax you.
  • Laugh. Don’t take the season so seriously. See a funny movie or wear a Santa hat to work.

Above all, stay in touch with your feelings and be assertive about what you need to stay healthy and calm. Don’t be afraid to say no, or ask for extra help when you need it. Remember that the “holiday blues” are seasonal and temporary, and will pass in time.

This Scripps Health and Wellness Information was provided by Dr. George Pratt, a clinical psychologist with Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.