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How to keep holiday-induced stress under control

If you're withdrawing or micromanaging, there's a strong chance you're under stress this season.
Image: A woman decorates a Christmas tree at home
Savoring the little moments — like decorating your house — is a great way to stay focused on what you love about the holiday season. Hero Images / Getty Images/Hero Images

As the classic Alfred Burt carol goes, “there's many and many a thing to do,” this holiday season — and only so much time to fit everything in. (And when it comes to gift shopping and prepping for Christmas dinner, your time is running out.) Add quirky family dynamics and the pressure to make the holiday season the most wonderful time of the year, and you’re looking at an overstuffed cornucopia of holiday-induced anxiety.

“It’s a time of year when energy and anticipation start to build. As the holidays draw near, both excitement and stress become intertwined,” says Dr. Nada Milosavljevic, a board certified physician and founder of the Integrative Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She explains that while this is an exciting season filled with joyful celebrations, re-connections and quality time with those we cherish most, it can also be a breeding ground for anxiety. Plus, there is often an overwhelming pressure to get everything done — and to do it immaculately — and financial concerns in regards to buying gifts can raise the stakes. “We all know that giving is better for the soul than receiving, but sometimes the task of giving during the holidays can be overwhelming," Milosavlievic says. The holidays can also make people feel particularly lonely or dissatisfied with their current social or familial situation.

Signs That the Holidays are Getting the Best of You

To overcome holiday anxiety, you must be aware that you’re stressed in the first place. Sometimes the signs are blatant, but that’s not always the case.

“[Holiday] distress usually shows itself in one of two ways,” says psychologist Acacia Parks, Ph.D., the chief scientist at Happify and associate editor at the Journal of Positive Psychology.

  • Irritability: “Some people show their stress by putting frenetic energy into trying to ‘fix’ things," says Parks. "They become irritable, which can make things more stressful by stressing out family and friends.”
  • Withdrawal: Another common response to stress, she says, is withdrawal and despondency, which can cause someone to give up on their to-do list and holiday commitments, or disengage completely. This can present as sadness, anger and feelings of bitterness.
  • Other symptoms: People with chronic stress or anxiety may also experience frequently disrupted sleep, an inability to focus or feel scattered. Dr. Milosavljevic notes that physical symptoms may occur as well, and include gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, frequent colds due to a compromised immune system, muscle soreness and tension and headaches.

Simple Strategies for a More Relaxing Season

When you feel the stress of the season taking hold, here are some effective measures you can take to better manage commitments and set a positive tone by taping into feelings associated with the season.

Be Mindful: “Mindfulness is all about noticing how you are feeling and just letting it happen,” explained Dr. Parks. “Often, people feel anxious about the holidays and they think that ‘means’ something; the holiday will go badly, they will disappoint others, that they have to do something about it...” They feel compelled to actively deal with a perceived threat when there’s no threat at all, or the ‘threat’ is very minimal. The world will still go ‘round, and your holiday will still be enjoyable, even if you forget the cream at the grocery store or send your cards a few days late. “If you can learn to notice that you feel worried and just let that happen, it frees you up to make your own choices about what you want to do instead of being ruled by anxiety,” says Parks.

Create a Game Plan: “Jot down those things that matter most,” said Dr. Milosavljevic. “For example, spending time with family and friends, spiritual or religious commitments and any other items that make the holidays especially meaningful.” If you begin to feel overwhelmed, review your list and let it remind you of what’s most important. For more task-oriented “to-dos,” create three separate lists and conquer them in this order: urgent must-do, must-do, optional. This allows you to prioritize, organize, curb procrastination (a catalyst for anxiety) and ultimately get more done with less stress.

Savor the Little Moments: Savoring is a wonderful and effective way to ground yourself in the present moment and to find true joy in what’s happening in front of you. “When you eat, take the time to appreciate everything about the food — the temperature, the different flavors and textures and components of the dish, how it looks,” said Dr. Parks. “You can do the same thing for the experience of being in a room with loved ones, riding in the car as a family to a celebration, tucking your kids in the night before Christmas or anything that has meaning to you.”

Start a Positive Piggy Bank: “If you're having trouble keeping track of the good things that happen around the holidays, consider doing what [psychologist] Afton Hassett calls a ‘positive piggy bank,’” advises Dr. Parks. “Have your household write down good things as they happen for the weeks leading up to the holidays — and the holidays themselves — and deposit those slips of paper into a jar, piggy bank, or box.” Think: something kind that a stranger did for you, a homemade card your child brought home from school or free time to curl up on the couch and watch a corny Christmas movie. When the holiday arrives, take turns reading the pieces of paper aloud so you can re-experience those happy moments and remind yourself of all the good that took place amidst the buzz.

Have your household write down good things as they happen for the weeks leading up to the holidays — and the holidays themselves — and deposit those slips of paper into a jar, piggy bank, or box.

Make New Traditions: “When dealing with a change, like divorce, some people find it useful to mix things up and try a new tradition, rather than trying to recreate an old tradition that is no longer possible. You're less likely to notice a hole where a person used to be if the holiday gets shuffled around so much that nobody has a ‘place.’” It's okay to feel sad or poignant, and it doesn't mean anything about the quality of your holiday. In fact, making new memories and connecting over past memories can create stronger bonds between family and friends.

Ultimately, finding joy in the holidays boils down to mindfully cherishing time spent with family and friends, only committing to the things that are most important to you and managing self-imposed expectations. By doing this, you’ll be on your way to overcoming the pressure of creating a “perfect holiday,” and you may even learn to cherish the inevitable imperfections along the way.

Holiday Survival Guide

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