How to beat back holiday stress

Expert tips on how to stave off those tense holiday moments before they even start.
Image: Stress
If you find yourself in a difficult conversation or argument, go for a walk, or take a “breathing break” in a quiet room to cool you off before you blow up.PeopleImages / Getty Images
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

Ever notice it seems like more fights break out among friends, co-workers and family members — not to mention fellow motorists and shoppers — this time of year? All the holiday hubbub can seriously put people on edge. According to a 2015 Healthline survey, 65 percent of Gen Xers and 61 percent of millennials feel some holiday stress each year. To help calm things down, we picked the minds of a few experts for helpful tips and constructive strategies to help stave off the tense moments before they start.

Stressor: Year-end overspend

Money scored highest on the Healthline survey of biggest (and most obvious) sources of stress around the holidays. “There’s pressure around some idealized version of how much should be spent on holidays, regardless if it’s reasonable regarding income,” says Lily Brown, Ph.D, director of research at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. And if you so happen to share a bank account with a partner who doesn’t share the same ideas about how much to spend, this can cause some friction.

Solution: Realize how much you already have

Brown says it’s key to get real about your holiday budget — and stick to it. “Confirm your bank account balance, open your bills as soon as they arrive rather than leaving them in a pile and check the status of student loan or mortgage balances. Then, make a budget and attempt to remain accountable to it. Share the budget with your partner. Accountability is a strong motivator for behavior change,” she says. Also, remember that money doesn’t buy love. “Uncouple the association between gifts and expressions of love or concern and find creative ways in the relationship to demonstrate love and care that are free, or inexpensive,” she recommends.

Stressor: Time is fleeting

Brown says time — or a lack thereof — is one of the season’s most serious holiday stressors. “People are split between the competing demands of family, friends and work. Even if money isn’t a problem, when time is limited, people get tense,” she says.

Solution: Prioritize self-care

With days are spent at work, nights packed with office parties, and weekends spent racing against time to making others happy, self-care can seem self-indulgent. Yet, without at least a little time to ourselves, it’s almost impossible to be the kind of family member you want to be, says Brown. Try to schedule some time for self-care as if it were a familial obligation. “If you don’t, you’ll have more pent-up stress and won’t be engaged in relationships the way you’d like,” Brown warns.

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Stressor: Family friction

When family members with different value systems and political world views confined to a dinner table, it can be a holiday recipe for disaster. “We see this around the polarizing political climate, how people with different ideological perspectives are expected to interact without clear ground rules — things can go off the rails pretty quickly,” Brown warns.

Solution: Get in front of it

If you’re anticipating a potential confrontation with a social contact or relative, show up to the holiday table with your boundaries in place, says Michel Mennesson, MD, a family psychiatrist with the Newport Academy. “Formulate a phrase or two that you can use to respond to a difficult question, or shut down a conversation that you don’t want to engage in,” he advises. “It can be as simple as ‘That’s something I’m not going to talk about right now.’”

Brown says you also have a few other choices — validate the perspective of your relative (agree to disagree) and enjoy your time together, or dissent and hold your ground, regardless of your relationship.

And, whatever you do, remember to breathe while you’re doing it. “When you come from a place of calm, your resilience is bolstered and you’re less likely to get pulled into a conversation you don’t want to have,” says Mennesson, who also recommends going for a walk, or taking a “breathing break” in a quiet room to cool you off before you blow up.

Problem: Idealizing the holidays

The illusion that the end of the year is supposed to be this magical time of togetherness is just that — an illusion. “Every holiday season brings along a nostalgia for how things were and how we wanted them to be. We carry the weight of our prior holiday experiences, and this influences the expectations of future holidays,” Brown says. So, when things don’t turn out to be as perfect as we’d like them to be, we might blame ourselves, or take our frustrations out on those closest to us.

Solution: Stay present

The best strategy to reduce conflict is to do whatever we can to stay in the present moment. “If you find yourself feeling disappointed around the holidays year after year, allow yourself to feel what you feel. Say what you need to say and be present with loved ones without striving for it to be different than it always is,” says Brown. “Practice deep breathing, mindfulness, acknowledging there’s always a part in you that always wants holidays to go a certain way.”

And remember — the best present you can give yourself and others, is just to be present.

HOLIDAY SURVIVAL GUIDE

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