Stress during holidays

Stress during the holiday season can take a real toll on your health. It can trigger depression, anxiety, financial woes, and even physical aches and pains.

Bah humbug, indeed.

This season brings with it many anxiety triggers — in the form of heightened spending, bustling schedules, and family expectations. But the best way to manage your holiday-induced stress is by preparing for it in the first place.

“I always remind people to have a plan,” says Melissa Brown, PsyD, clinical psychologist, UPMC in Central Pa. “In the heat of a moment, emotions rule. We can say things or react in ways we ordinarily would not.”

Take some time to reflect on your anxiety levels during this busy time of year. Create a strategy to help you manage the season’s demands without sacrificing your sense of well-being.

What Can Trigger Holiday Stress?

Many different factors can cause stress at this time of year. It can vary by person. Some stressors are chronic triggers, while some might depend on your own current situation.

“Contrary to popular belief, the thought of celebrating the holiday season is not always synonymous with gratitude and peace,” Dr. Brown says.

The first step in managing your holiday anxiety is identifying your stressor. Common causes of holiday stress during the holiday season include:

  • Being away from a partner, friends, and family.
  • Associating the holiday with family turmoil.
  • Facing an illness during the holiday season.
  • Feeling lonely or isolated from others.
  • Feeling anxious about social or financial obligations.
  • Drinking alcohol more heavily at social functions.
  • Managing a busy social schedule on top of other responsibilities.
  • Keeping up with a busy workload — shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining, for example.

Ways to Cope with Holiday Stress

Stress can cause physical and emotional burdens during the holidays. But you can lower your stress levels with the right preparation before the season and with some coping mechanisms during the holidays themselves.

Before the season begins, set your priorities

The holidays don’t have to be perfect to be memorable. Start the season by defining, realistically, what will make it enjoyable for you. What traditions are important, and what others can be jettisoned? Does your Christmas dinner need to be extravagant, or can you simply host an intimate evening for a few friends and family?

Create your spending limit

Before you head out on a shopping spree, decide in advance how much money you’re going to spend. You can even set aside budgets for individual family members.

When it comes to your holiday shopping, keep it simple. Start early when you still have plenty of selection and time, and ask your loved ones what they want in advance. This will help you better plan and budget as the season unfolds.

Avoid bustling malls and shopping centers by ordering things online.

Set your time limit.

Sometimes the family you adore doesn’t get along well. And that’s OK.

If you have a troubled relationship with some family members, simply set a limit on how much time you’re going to spend with them. Set aside your differences for this designated period.

Take a breath or a break

Create an exit strategy should you become overwhelmed or as tensions rise. It can be as simple as going for a walk or taking deep breaths.

“Taking just three minutes a day to slow our breath and focus on something which brings us joy can be a game-changer,” Dr. Brown says. “If walking away is not an option, suggest group activities like a board game, watching a movie, looking at pictures, or revisiting a favorite tradition.”

Dr. Brown says it’s important to not forget humor. It can serve as a coping tactic or way of improving your mood or situation. Laughter can also generate endorphins, your body’s “feel-good” hormones.

“Focusing on what we can control and choosing a different reaction can help de-escalate a heated discussion,” Dr. Brown says. “Still, always remember it is OK to leave when you feel uncomfortable. Nobody should be forced to remain in a volatile environment.”

Share the workload

Organizing your annual holiday feast? Sit down and create a menu — then have your loved ones pitch in on a few of the cooking responsibilities. You can also try picking up some prepared foods instead of whipping up everything from scratch.

Learn to say no

Many find their holiday schedule packed with parties, gift exchanges, and other outings. Remember to not overschedule yourself. It’s OK to say no to some social engagements.

“It is not uncommon for people to overextend themselves and say ‘yes’ to people and invitations more than they would like,” Dr. Brown says. “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

Avoid traveling to events during rush hour. And simplify some of your traditions with close friends and family. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t go.

Practice self-care

Align your goals with your values daily instead of trying to pivot in a stressful moment. Keeping a schedule or routine will help ease the anticipatory anxiety you may feel in the days leading up to an event.

“Of course, finding gratitude in a moment of anxiety or conflict can be difficult,” Dr. Brown says. “The idea of getting back to basics can help you achieve that goal. Concentrate on the simple, small moments in that moment. Consider what and who brings you happiness. Focus on you and not whatever is temporarily causing you stress, because it is possible to manifest what we fear.”

Limit your alcohol consumption

It may seem drugs and alcohol reduce stress in the short term. But in the long run, they may worsen your feelings of anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC cites the Dietary Guidelines for Americanswhich recommends moderate drinking for people of legal drinking age (21 or older). Moderate drinking equates to one drink or less per day for women or two drinks or less per day for men.

Avoid binge-drinking, which is defined as four drinks or more during a single occasion for women and five drinks or more during a single occasion for men.

Keep moving

Maybe you’re accustomed to going for a morning run or attending an evening yoga class. Don’t abandon these healthy habits during the holiday season. Rather, create a schedule and stick to the things that keep you feeling happy and healthy.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-level aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week. So getting exercise may not just help with stress — it also has a physical benefit.

If you don’t have a workout regimen, take some time each day to go for a walk. Exercise can be a powerful means of managing stress.

Hold on to good habits

The CDC advises that healthy habits can help you manage feelings of stress. Eat well-balanced meals, get plenty of sleep, and spend time alone or with your partner to unwind.

Seek support when you need it

“Mind over matter” does not always work, Dr. Brown says. Despite our best efforts, sometimes we can’t turn a situation around. If you find that your mood changes are lingering or interrupting your lifestyle, or if you’re turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms, seek the help of a professional.

Dr. Brown advises looking into options available through your Employee Assistance Program, health insurance plan, or other community resources.

“With a little planning, support, and new perspective, everyone can unwrap comfort and joy at their next celebration,” she says.

Getting a handle on holiday stress requires commitment before, during, and after the season. At UPMC Behavioral Health Services, we’re here to provide support if you need it. To find behavioral and mental health care near you, visit our website.

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