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 the year. So why do so many of us feel tense, anxious, frustrated or sad?
“For starters, consider what stress is,” says George Pratt, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Scripps Health. “It's a reaction to change that requires us to respond,” he says.
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. They 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,” Dr. Pratt says.
The very things that make the holidays special can become stressful when expectations spiral out of control. When holiday decorating 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,” Dr. Pratt says. “Many of us feel pressure to carry on family traditions that date back over decades, such as 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.
One of the first steps toward dealing with holiday stress 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.
To help manage stress and make it a truly enjoyable season, keep the following 10 tips in mind:
Try to plan for more time than you think you’ll need for travel, shopping and other holiday time activities. “Better to have extra time than not enough,” Dr. Pratt says.
Finances are one of the biggest sources of stress both during the holidays and after, when the credit card bills start rolling in.
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.
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.
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,” Dr. Pratt says. 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.
Don’t try to hide sadness or anger, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. “Talk about it with a trusted friend or counselor,” Dr. Pratt says.
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.
Take time to help a family member or neighbor, or spend an hour or two volunteering with a non-profit organization.
Fun has been lost in our society. Play music while you’re decorating, sing carols — anything to get out of your routine.
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.
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,” Dr. Pratt says. “Don’t be afraid to say no, or ask for extra help when you need it,” Dr. Pratt says.
Remember that the “holiday blues” are seasonal and temporary, and will pass in time, he says.