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Beating Holiday (and Everyday) Stress

Take control of your holiday-related stress with these effective recommendations

by Peter Lambrou, PhD

I overheard someone say recently that if they heard one more holiday song, they were going to scream. What is it about the holidays — a time that is traditionally festive and filled with joy—that can create so much stress and frustration? And more importantly, what can you do to manage these challenges?

Common triggers for anxiety during the holiday

In my psychology practice and in everyday conversations, I’ve identified three main culprits that rob us of holiday happiness:

  • Not enough time. Many people already feel enough time pressure as it is. The holiday season adds even more things you need and/or want to accomplish to your already lengthy “to do” list.
  • Unusual demands. With the holidays come extra challenges that you don’t face during the rest of the year, such as choosing and buying multiple gifts, attending social events — both those you want to attend and those you feel obligated to attend because of work, school or other factors — negotiating crowded roads and shopping centers, and the onslaught of holiday advertising.
  • Forced choices. Pressure to travel to see family or friends for the holidays often means spending money, time and patience to get somewhere you may not really want to go in the first place. Even if you don’t travel, family get-togethers may be mandatory when you’d really rather have a quiet evening at home.

The good news is, there is a solution to these challenges — not just over the holidays, but after New Year’s Day as well.

Change your perceptions and change your life

Combating stress begins with changing your thinking, including your perception or point of view. When you look at your situation in a different light, you can begin to reduce your stress level.

You can further reduce stress by acting on what you can control, such as spending, and making choices rather than letting situations direct your actions.

What’s more, when your mind is calm, your body follows. Your body responds to how you think and what’s going on in your head, so by balancing mind, body and spirit, you can find relief.

Suggestions for preventing holiday stress

Here are a few ideas to help you start changing the way you think about and perceive stressful situations:

  • See your circumstances as temporary, and they become easier to handle. Remember, the holiday season only lasts for a few weeks. Then the traffic and crowds will dissipate.
  • Look for opportunities in the challenges. Ask yourself, “What is the most productive way for me to look at this situation?” For example, Jenny’s family has been hit hard by the economic downturn and feared they couldn’t buy gifts for everyone they wanted.

She saw this as an opportunity to have a ‘gift-making day’ on Saturday where she and her kids used a crafts book as a guide to make customized handmade gifts for many of their friends and extended family.

Lisa felt she didn’t have time to shop the malls this year so she asked her teenager to teach her how to search the web. She saved a lot of time and discovered new computer skills and self-confidence along the way.

  • Focus on the positive. Think about what you are thankful for. Be grateful that you have so many people who want to see you over the holidays, that you have a family to celebrate with, or that you are healthy enough to do so. Positive focus creates positive feelings.
  • Catch negative self-talk and turn it into neutral or positive. Instead of “I don’t want to or I can’t” think in terms of “I can, I choose, I create, I have, I am…”
  • Take care of yourself. Arrange your life to get better sleep, nutrition, exercise, and overall health. Find and practice regular mental as well as physical relaxation such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, structured breathing and other exercises.

Remember, it’s not the actual events in your life that cause stress or create calm, but your perception of them. Control your perceptions and you control your happiness.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Peter Lambrou, PhD, chair of psychology at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.