Prioritize to reduce stress
For many people, "the most wonderful time of the year" is actually really difficult. There's just something about the holidays that seems to tap into all our inner woes and stresses. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), almost half of all women (44 percent) and a third of men (31 percent) reported an increase in stress around the holidays. Another survey found that almost half of those polled (45 percent) would prefer to skip Christmas altogether! So what can you do? Prioritize what's important, and don't tack on any additional tasks, suggests Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, psychologist and author of The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques. "Create a space and a plan for the important things, and then see what else may fit in around them," she says. "Think ahead about what is always a waste of time in your life and then do not do those things. For example, if you always bake a lot but have most of the cookies and pastries left over, skip it this year." Follow these organizational skills to stress-proof your holiday season.
Let go of the picture-perfect holiday
Thanks to popular culture, we all have an idea of what the holidays are "supposed" to look like—sitting around a fire with family and friends and unwrapping plentiful gifts before a big feast. Unfortunately, this happy picture doesn't reflect many realities of the season. "Unrealistic hopes that everything will be perfect, and that everyone needs to be happy leads to disappointment and frustration, and raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which will make you feel edgy and irritable," says Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist, an award-winning author of Living With Depression, and a professor at Adelphi University. Instead, "focus on what's 'good enough,' and make that your mantra. The more realistic you are about the true meaning of the holidays, which is about celebration and togetherness—not perfection—the more you'll experience well-being." Consider making these unique traditions part of your own family's.
Don't expect the holidays to fix longstanding tensions
We may want the holiday season to lead to making amends with loved ones, but it may not always be possible in such a short time, especially when holiday prep triggers stress. "People want the holiday time to make up for family and personal tensions that exist throughout the year," Wehrenberg says. "This myth of forgiveness and reunion is fed by numerous stories on TV programs and movies." Although there's nothing wrong with wanting to ease any conflicts, it's important to manage expectations with others—they won't just change overnight. "Avoid falling into old behavioral patterns with others by being aware of them before you arrive," Serani adds. Read more about the psychology behind sibling estrangement here.
Plan ahead to avoid triggers of loss
The season has a tendency to magnify the people or things we're missing in our lives. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, feelings of grief and loss are heightened during the holidays. "Especially if it's the first holiday after a divorce or death, or if you're alone, you may be missing someone so much that it makes your holiday traditions feel empty," Serani says. "It can also be hard to feel like celebrating or get into a festive spirit if you're moving through a difficult time like illness, financial hardship, job loss, or other stressful experiences." If old traditions are too painful, Serani suggests planning new ones in order to take control and move through the challenges you're facing. Volunteering is another way to feel needed again if you're alone for the first time. Most importantly, don't ignore the elephant in the room. "Talk freely about what you have enjoyed with your loved one in the past—for example ask, 'Wouldn't my mother have loved to be here for this?'" Wehrenberg says. "Pretending the loss did not occur tends to make it worse." Here are things you should avoid saying to a widow.
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Refrain from overindulging
Holiday parties can lead us to take out our seasonal woes on the buffet table. According to the American Psychological Association's survey, 56 percent of participants reported eating to reduce stress during the holidays, versus 38 percent during the rest of the year. "It's easy to get lost in delicious treats at holiday time," Serani says. "Too much of a good thing though can spike sugar levels and kick up production of insulin, leaving you feeling tired, agitated, and slowing your performance at work and at home." In order to avoid this, learn to recognize patterns of unhealthy eating behavior and be mindful of limits. As in the rest of the year, "healthy eating with occasional indulgences is the way to go," Serani says. Follow this healthy eating plan the day before a holiday party.
Avoid drinking too much
Even if you don't gorge on deviled eggs, you might hit the bar cart hard, especially as a remedy for holiday-induced depression. The APA's study found that 38 percent of participants used alcohol to deal with holiday worries, compared to 18 percent during the rest of the year. Of course, that never works—and in a vicious cycle, it frequently makes negative feelings even worse. "Hangovers from alcohol do not add to joy," Wehrenberg says. Plus, it can be dangerous: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, two to three times more people die in alcohol-related car crashes, and 40 percent of traffic fatalities involve an alcohol-impaired driver during the holidays. So although it can be tempting to drown your sorrows in a bottle, limit the amount you consume, and recognize others in your social circle who might need help. "People with alcohol abuse issues may create very distressing situations, being drunk and argumentative, abusive, or otherwise disturbing to family and friends," Wehrenberg says. "Family should plan ahead how to handle this situation, and perhaps spending some time at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings [or other recovery groups] or talking with a counselor before the holiday can help sort out what to do." This is what happens to your body when you drink a glass of wine every night.
Exercise to feel healthier
With so much going on during the holidays, working out often takes a back seat. Plus, what's the point if you're already being unhealthy by eating and drinking too much, right? Well, along with avoiding those other bad habits, it's wise to carve out time for physical activity. If not getting enough exercise adds to feeling poorly physically and mentally, getting more exercise leads to feeling good and busting holiday sadness. And that doesn't have to mean spending hours at the gym. "You can keep active by parking a little further from the store to walk, climbing the escalator, or taking stairs instead of elevators," Dr. Serani says. "Those little bursts of energy will reduce some of the stress you're feeling." Use this simple trick to actually enjoy your exercise routine.
Get enough "me" time
With all the craziness around the holidays, taking care of ourselves can fall to the bottom of our to-do list. But not making time for self-care can lead to feeling down in the dumps. "You can shift your neurochemistry by simply pampering yourself," Serani says. "You don't have to book a spa weekend to get the benefits. Consider fragrant baths, a hot cup of tea, a quiet moment in the car, lighting candles, and cuddling with a loved one. These sensorial things raise dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, feel good hormones that improve mood." Make sure you're getting enough sleep, too, which can help with mood and resilience to stress.
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Manage seasonal affective disorder
Although not directly holiday related, seasonal affective disorder (is it any wonder the acronym spells SAD?) hits when the days get short, exactly around the holidays. "Circadian rhythm needs sunlight to adequately produce the hormone melatonin, which runs our sleep/wake cycle and well-being," Serani says. "Less sun means disruption in melatonin—and this can set off irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleeping problems, headache, and fatigue." In order to counterbalance its effects, get outside for a few minutes, or sit near a window in mid-day. "You'll need about 20 minutes a day to keep your body clock on time,'" she says. You also can try to adjust mentally to the increasing darkness. Studies in Norway have shown that even though there is very little daylight, Norwegians don't suffer from wintertime depression at an increased rate. Why? They keep their mood bright with the tradition of "koselig," which means a sense of coziness: Think skiing, candlelight, fuzzy blankets, candlelight, and ice skating. This is one of the best ways to beat seasonal affect disorder, and it's free.
Toss out money woes
The pressure to buy the biggest and best presents can cause anxiety for those who are strapped for cash. According to a poll by Consumer Reports National Research Center, 31 percent of participants cited getting into debt as a major source of anxiety around the holidays. "Making a budget and sticking with it is ideal, using cash instead of credit helps keep the lid on, and avoid impulse spending by making a list and checking it twice to be sure it is a reasonable cost," Wehrenberg advises. Also, talk with some of those you exchange presents with to see if you can set a spending limit or agree to re-gift this year. Or, your group can do a secret Santa or white elephant exchange to cut down on the number of total gifts.
Say no to overcommitting
It's no surprise that women more than men report feeling stressed at holiday time, as women are frequently in charge of holiday preparations like gifts, meals, cards, decorations, and get-togethers. But this year, consider saying "no" to the millionth task you're asked to do—or that you're asking yourself to do. "The season of 'giving' can really end up 'taking' from you, especially if you're a person who does too much, can't say no, and is hesitant to delegate chores," Serani says. "Your stress response will be working overtime, with cortisol and adrenaline helping you get things done, but leaving you burnt out and irritable." Instead, make a plan ahead of time for how much you can handle, and avoid committing to more. Don't put off shopping for food and gifts, and look for ways to cut corners.
Decide how YOU want to spend the holidays
Pressure from visiting family, or deciding which side of the family you're going to visit, can take its toll. This is especially true if you're trying to figure out how to avoid a particularly toxic family member who might bring you down and dampen the holiday mood. Instead, set boundaries. "Identify your personal priorities—with whom do you want to spend time, and how much? Do not hesitate to tell people proactively when you want to see them and for how long," Wehrenberg says. She suggests using straightforward language like, "I would love to be together and I also want some time just with my daughter and spouse on Christmas morning. How about if we do breakfast on the 26th?" or "I so enjoy Thanksgiving Day and you're welcome to join my family at my house; I want to stay home and not travel this year." Avoid being passive aggressive. And don't feel guilty: You deserve a happy holiday too.
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