How to Combat Stress During the Holidays

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. But for at least 38% of the population, the holiday season is also the most stressful time, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Add to that the fact that 53% of Americans feel more financial stress than ever during the holidays, and you have a recipe for serious mental health implications.

Also known by the oxymoron “festive stress,” the increased stress levels people feel during the last month of the year seem to increase with each passing year. This phenomenon has piqued the interest of mental health professionals, who have studied the stages, causes, and coping mechanisms for holiday stress.

Stress on a schedule

For many folks, the holiday season begins as early as September, when the big box stores start displaying holiday decorations and suggesting gift ideas. For others, it’s the monumental task of preparing and hosting a Thanksgiving meal for dozens of family members. Still, others use the pre-dawn holiday shopping frenzy of the aptly-named Black Friday as their official holiday kickoff.

Surveys show, however, that there are three stages of holiday stress. A study commissioned by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council found that stage one begins on December 13. Perhaps that’s when the reality of the looming December 25 deadline sets in, and people begin double-checking their overwhelming to-do lists. Stage two hits around December 18. With only seven days until the arrival of Santa Claus (and uninvited friends, cranky family, unassembled gifts, and yet another massive meal) stress levels turn from mild to severe.

According to the Highbush study, stress reaches its peak on Christmas Day at about 2:05 p.m. Many families are sitting down to enjoy their hard-earned Christmas feasts, while some are most likely tackling its aftermath of dirty dishes and leftovers. Both options deliver their brands of frustration and stress.

stress during the holidays

Causes of holiday stress

It’s not difficult to pinpoint sources of stress during the holidays (one survey named 25 separate stress-inducing emotions and activities). Fifty-six percent of the Highbush survey respondents ranked gift shopping as the most stressful part of the season, followed by cleaning (45%), knowing what gifts to buy for people (38%), and cooking (36%).

The survey also found that 41% of people feel pressured to put on the “perfect Christmas.” Moms feel even more pressure, with 49% reporting significant stress from working too hard to achieve that perfection.

Gift shopping can heap on a double dose of holiday stress. It’s not only fighting the department store crowds or frantically finding last-minute gifts for someone who didn’t make your list. It’s also the financial stress of amassing credit card debt or cleaning out the bank account⁠—even with a holiday shopping budget. No one wants to see the look of disappointment on a family member’s face during the Christmas morning gift-opening frenzy, so sometimes we overcompensate by increasing the number or expense of, gifts.

For others, the holiday season is a reminder of happier times, loved ones who have passed away, or even traumatic events associated with this time of year. While some people fret over hosting and pleasing a mass of family members, others suffer from loneliness, having no one with whom to celebrate the season. Additionally, more than a million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s exacerbated by the daylight and weather transitions from fall to winter.

On top of all of this, many people are still working full-time jobs for the majority of the month, and trying to fit in their holiday obligations on evenings and weekends. Perhaps they’re even worried about the effects their holiday time off will have on their workload in the new year.

The holiday health factor

Overindulging throughout the holidays isn’t limited to spending and gift-giving. The plethora of hors d’oeuvres-heavy holiday parties, the ever-present products of hours-long cooking and baking marathons, and the sheer simplicity and accessibility of break-room snacks and fast food make sticking to a healthy diet difficult. Alcohol is inherently abundant and a constant temptation.

Hectic schedules and overall holiday fatigue can make regular exercise and adequate sleep a challenge. Although we’d like to think to elbow our way through a frenzied crowd of holiday shoppers is exercise, this kind of physical activity is much more likely to induce stress than fight it. 

It’s not just a lack of self-control that leads to unhealthy overindulgence during the holidays. Many people will use food or alcohol as self-prescribed stress relief. A whopping 74% of respondents to the Highbush study revealed they turn to unhealthy snacks (and 60% of them said they feel guilty about it afterward). Forty-nine percent of Americans use caffeine from coffee or energy drinks to cope with stress, while some will inevitably turn to alcohol or drugs to escape the pressure, sadness, isolation, and mounting obligations.

In addition to the mental health implications of festive stress, medical experts caution that the combination of stress and overindulgence can have serious consequences for our physical health. The holidays often overlap with flu season, and a body overloaded with stress can be more susceptible to illness. Plus, according to WebMD, at least one study has found a link to the stress of the season and the increasing rate of fatal heart attacks occurring during December and January.

Ready to feel better about the holidays?

Surviving the season

We know when and why we’re going to be stressed this holiday season. We also have a pretty good idea of how some of the ways we usually cope might actually increase stress. And most importantly, we know what can happen if we don’t manage our stress properly. Now that we’re armed with this information, we can use it to create a plan to combat, or at least recognize and reduce, our holiday stress before it takes a page from the Grinch and steals all of our holiday joy.

The first step of your plan is to sit down as far ahead of the holidays as possible, take a deep breath, and mindfully sort out your top priorities. If fighting the frenzied shopping crowds on the day after Thanksgiving is a holiday tradition you enjoy, maybe this activity makes it to the top of your list. Maybe you think flying the family across the country to visit your parents is something you simply don’t want to miss this year. As things rise to the top, others can be cut. Maybe you can forego caroling, reciting Hanerot Hallalu, organizing the school’s charity drive, or even hosting the family meal in favor of prioritized activities.

Scaling down is also an excellent way to lower your holiday stress levels. Perhaps you live for your friends’ holiday parties but loathe the festivities planned by your coworkers. It’s well within your rights to decline one or two (or five) invites! Is it that important to buy the “perfect” gift for every member of your extended family or send hundreds of personalized holiday cards to everyone in your address book? And exactly how crucial are your complicated casseroles to the holiday feast? Paring down your list of gift recipients or foregoing a personal message in every card won’t destroy your relationships. Surely your dinner guests won’t mind if you replace your 23-ingredient stuffing with a less-intense recipe or even a store-bought version.

Scheduling for stress

Avoiding unpleasant surprises and last-minute pressure is important to managing festive stress. The best way to plan your holiday is to write everything down. Using a calendar to schedule your holiday time will not only help you visualize the scope of your obligations but also to see potential conflicts and opportunities for cutting back. If you’re scheduling by the hour, be sure to include adequate travel time between engagements so you’re not inadvertently adding hectic holiday traffic to your list of stressors.

While you’re scheduling everything you feel you must do for others, be sure to include some “me time” on your calendar. Maybe for every major accomplishment during the season—completing your shopping list, making a budget, or planning a holiday meal—you reward yourself with the gift of time. Mark off a half-day where you leave work early just to get a massage, sit in the park listening to holiday music on your headphones, or cozy up for a Christmas movie marathon. Anything that takes your mind off your worries and commitments or boosts your mood will reduce your stress level and help you function better going forward.

Don’t forget to schedule a time for healthy habits, too. You may not have time for all of your regular spin classes, but you can get up 30 minutes early to enjoy a brisk walk around the block or a yoga session. Sunshine helps to combat the symptoms of SAD by stimulating the production of serotonin in your body. Likewise, exercise releases endorphins. Both serotonin and endorphins lower stress by triggering positive feelings in your brain.

If nothing else, make sure you remember to breathe. It may sound silly or simple, but too often we forget how much better we feel when we breathe deeply. Breathing is at the core of mindfulness and meditation because of its many stress-reducing benefits. With each breath, imagine you’re breathing in gratitude and blessings and breathing out negativity and stress.

Overcoming depression

Mindfulness-centered activities become more important for those suffering from depression during the holiday time. On top of the stress from the hustle and bustle of comings and goings, many people experience deep emotional and mental pain from loss, loneliness, or strained relationships. For them, the holidays can be the most dreaded time of the year. Fortunately, there are some healthy ways to cope.

Experts at the Mayo Clinic urge those struggling with depression and sadness to acknowledge their feelings and realize that it’s normal to be sad, especially if it’s your first holiday after the death of a loved one or after a divorce. Reach out to others, whether that’s a support group, a close friend, or religious advisor, and participate in non-stressful community events like choir performances or holiday plays that keep you from being isolated without adding stress.

If there are conflicts among family members, the holiday season is the best time to set aside those differences. Call a “truce” for December, or, better yet, sit down with the person to work through the issues. Finding a psychologist and talking with a licensed counselor or therapist about deep-seated resentments, disagreements, or other hard feelings will help you get to the root of the problem as well as formulate realistic solutions to resolve it. If nothing else, avoid situations that put you in a position to interact with the person with whom you have a conflict. A confrontation is sure to ruin not only your holiday mood but also that of others who witness it.

How to have a happy holiday

The holiday season, like most high holidays celebrated by major religions and belief systems around the world, grew out of setting aside time for reflection on one’s life and yearning for hope and renewal. Our culture excels at mixing consumerism and busyness as integral to the celebration. However, a more valuable gift to yourself may be allowing yourself the time and space to choose who you surround yourself with and how you celebrate this time of year. 

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