Overwhelmed with the Holiday Season? You’re Not Alone! 13 Strategies to Manage Stress

Dec 03, 2016

Ready or not, time is ticking and the holiday season is upon us. Although retailers have us convinced the season started back in October when Halloween decor and candy shared space along Christmas and Hanukkah cards, candy, decor and themed gifts. In less than a week, the “official” holiday season will begin with Thanksgiving.

How do you feel about the beginning of the holiday season; excited, overwhelmed or anxious? Are you looking forward to seeing family and friends through gatherings and celebrations? Does the thought of getting ready for the holidays conjure up pleasant memories with anticipation? Do you look forward to continuing holiday traditions or are you feeling a sense of dread with the extra responsibilities and tasks in an already tiring and a jam-packed schedule? If you feel a combination of all of the aforementioned, you are not alone.

The holidays bring about intensified emotions, positive and negative, including stress. In 2006, The American Psychological Association (APA) conducted a national survey on this very topic-Holiday Stress. The key findings from the survey include:

  • Women reported more stress during the holidays than men. Not surprising as women are often the ones during the holiday season responsible for many tasks related to celebrations: planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning around gatherings and events.
  • Emotions are more intense during the holidays than other times of the year. Celebrating the holidays with family and friends brings a range of emotional experiences. Positive emotions of happiness, love and good spirits were most reported along with negative emotions of stress, fatigue, worry, sadness and loneliness.
  • People enjoy the holidays. Many people look forward to spending time with loved ones, especially family.
  • Lack of money, limited time and commercialism hype (spend more/find the perfect gift) significantly increases stress. Many people worry about money, buying gifts and being pulled in many directions on top of already demanding and full schedules and responsibilities.
  • Men and women feel pressure during the holidays. In similar and different ways with a goal to make the holidays special and memorable for their families.
  • Workplace stress and demands continue. People worry about getting enough time off and how job responsibilities will impact and interfere with family time.
  • Coping with stress through sedentary behaviors increases during the holidays. Many people cope with the increase of stress during the holidays through eating, sleeping, watching television and alcohol use.
  • Compared to men, women had a challenging time relaxing during the holidays. Relaxing is especially challenging for individuals who feel responsible or in charge of the holidays.

The findings from the APA survey reaffirms what many women already experience during the holidays. The marathon of get-togethers, cooking, cleaning, planning and spending time with family and friends and other obligations-children’s school activities, work and volunteering for events can be enjoyable, exhausting, fun and stressful.

If you want to enjoy the holidays, manage your stress with the following suggestions:

1. Laugh-Especially During Stress
Even with the best of intentions and a well thought out plan, mistakes are made and things happen that are out of your control. Try to keep a sense of humor even with stressful events. Several years ago my daughter, four years old at the time, had a Thanksgiving play scheduled in the evening. About an hour before the play, she started saying she didn’t want to go. I told her we would still go; she was part of the cast and her classmates needed her in the play. While I was changing her baby sister, she was in another room, grabbed a pair of scissors and cut 12-inches of hair off, creating half-inch “bangs” that honestly looked ridiculous. We still took her to the play. While she sat in the audience and refused to participate, my husband and I used humor to cope; which helped us diffuse our frustration with our daughter and keep perspective-this was one play for thirty minutes we didn’t need to get worked up over her hair or lack of participation and her hair would eventually grow back. And, it was the event that kept giving; her bangs eventually grew out by summer.

2. ‘Perfect & Should’ Are Your Enemy. The holiday season intensifies expectations about how events unfold. Enormous pressure occurs to have a “perfect” holiday where no one fights; everyone is well-behaved, appreciative, helpful and expresses gratitude for all you do and of course enjoys one another company tremendously. Lovely if this happens in your family, but often so, this is not the case. During the holidays there are moments of enjoyment and relaxation, and there is also stress; someone drinks too much, a child gets sick, family members fight, traffic and inclement weather delay or cancels events. Keep in mind there are many variables outside of your control during the holiday season. Having a mindset the holidays need to be “perfect” creates an unrealistic expectation which can heighten stress when things fall short of your plan or idea of how things “should go.” Manage your thoughts and behaviors during the holidays by:

* staying calm in when unexpected challenges occur
*adapting by being flexible to changing situations and environments
*emotionally detach from situations
*try to find humor with stressful situations

3. Over-Scheduling is also an Enemy. In the APA Holiday Stress survey (2006), one of the most reported factors contributing to stress was limited time. Give yourself permission to decline invitations and limit scheduling of events. You don’t have to attend every social event invited to, agree to volunteer for everything and anything asked of you. Don’t take on more than is possible and don’t schedule you or your family without having time to rest and relax. People tend to be cranky and irritable when tired, especially children. Schedule time in your calendar for everyone in the family to have unscheduled time to do what they want or simply relax. When scheduling and preparing for the holidays, schedule time for yourself, however you want to spend it as a way to restore and replenish your energy. Fiercely guard time for yourself too so as not to give it away.

4. Learn to Say “No”. Women more often than men report higher levels of stress during the holidays. On top of all of the responsibilities for the holiday, many women find it stressful to decline an event or a request for help during the holidays. Setting limits and boundaries and saying ‘no’ to others can be challenging. When you start making a list of all of the things to do during the holidays, make sure to put yourself on the list. Give yourself permission to decline an event or a requested task if it is in conflict with your well-being and enjoyment of the holidays.

5. Put Relaxation on the Schedule. Schedule a massage, listen to music, read, go for a walk, meditate and practice yoga are some ways to relax. Don’t wait until you are so stressed out to seek ways to relax. Work to build relaxing activities into your regular schedule to manage stress and to have activities to look forward to. If you are at loss for how to relax, please go here to check out some ideas on relaxation. If you would like to read a list of 33 Ways to Relax, please go here.

6. Don’t Skimp on Sleep. Sleep is a great balancer. Long lists of things to do, limited time and pressure to fit it all in can result in late nights working to be productive. When you are sleep deprived, it is more challenging to cope and function. Try to stay within normal sleep routines as much as possible, sleep deprivation over time can add up to increase stress, reduce the use of healthy coping skills and make you more vulnerable to getting sick.

7. Resist the Latte. It’s tempting to seek caffeine to increase energy and productivity, however, not without risks and consequences. Caffeine is a stimulant; it jolts your body into a state of alertness. Overuse of caffeine can mimic symptoms of anxiety and panic; elevated heart rate, agitation, sweating, racing thoughts and difficulty catching one’s breath, especially during times of stress. Sleep studies have also shown having more than two servings of caffeine a day can decrease the quality of night-time restorative sleep. To boost energy, go for a brisk walk, call a friend, or put your feet up for even ten minutes to increase energy and If you crave a soothing warm drink, opt for decaf.

8. Keep Moving. A wonderful way to cope with stress is to exercise. Find the time during the holiday season to exercise. Even small portions of exercise, ten to twenty minutes a day, can help manage stress. As reported in the APA Holiday Stress Survey, many people become sedentary and during the holidays and opt to watch television, sleep or eat and drink to cope with stress. Plan you exercise ahead of schedule; it will help you manage stress and the demands upon you during the holiday season.

9. Limit Alcohol. Alcohol use increases during the holidays even for the casual drinker. Many people drink alcohol as a way to relax at social gatherings, decrease mild anxiety and cope with stressful family gatherings. In my clinical work, I have seen a pattern emerge during the holidays-alcohol use, and abuse is a common factor in many miscommunications, misunderstandings, arguments and fights between couples, friends and family. Alcohol intensifies emotions. The more alcohol consumed, the less of a verbal filter, the more increased potential for negative effects from drinking. When you are at gatherings, keep alcohol use to a minimum. If you are with someone who has too much to drink, give yourself permission to limit intense or important conversations and revisit such topics when the individual is not under the influence of alcohol.

10. Delegate when Possible. Much of the stress for women during the holiday is doing too much. Sometimes it seems impossible to delegate tasks or ask for help. Make a list of what needs to be done during the holidays. See if you can take a few things off the ‘to do list’ by asking others to take over a task or errand. While it may not be done “exactly” your way, letting other people help you can free up some of your time and help you relax and enjoy the holiday season.

11. Reach Out for Support. Keep supportive people nearby by reaching out for a call, text, or a visit. Reach out for support to those who are emotionally supportive and helpful in your life. Let friends know ahead of time if you need a phone call or visit to debrief a work or family function. If you are in therapy or thinking of going to therapy, now might be a good time to consider professional support as a layer of emotional support during a stressful time.

12. Stay Mindful. To be mindful means to be present in the moment that is unfolding in front of you and participating fully in the moment with minimal distraction. If you are in a state of worry, it is near impossible to be mindful. Worry detracts from enjoyment. In everyday life and especially during the holidays, many of us have a long list of things to do and an itinerary by the minute scrolling in our minds of the next thing to get to. Work to stay focused on what is important to you. What part of the holiday season is most meaningful to you? Is it celebrating for religious reasons? Connecting with friends and family? Honoring family traditions of cooking, baking, and storytelling? Is one of your goals of the holiday to see the enjoyment and happiness with your children and family? If you find yourself stressed out, take a deep breath, refocus and place effort into being in the moment.

13. Manage Financial Stress. Financial worry and concerns and limited money increases stress. Make a budget and plan to spend what you can afford. Many people feel pressure to buy gifts and spend money during the holidays, even if they can not afford it. Commercialism hype to spend and buy elaborate gifts is plentiful during the holidays. If you have financial stress, it may be a good time to consider scaling back purchases and/or setting limits about gift-giving/celebrations with family and friends. Many people feel they have to participate in every holiday social gathering, buy gifts for every relative and keep things as previous years even in times of financial stress. I have worked with many clients who felt pressure to buy gifts and attend social events even when they couldn’t afford to do so. It can be tempting to use credit cards to pay for items you can not afford in order keep things ‘as usual.’ In the long run, buying things you can not afford will likely increase anxiety, worry and stress when payments are due the next billing cycle.

As we begin to gear up for a season of celebrating, please remember to take care of yourself and schedule activities to manage and reduce your stress. If you have no idea how to reduce your stress, please go here for a list of 55 Stress-Relieving Activities and be sure to add some of your own. For many moms, this time of year is hectic, busy, fun and memorable-make sure to put self-care on the list of to-do’s as it’s a marathon time of year!

© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2016