The winter holiday season has officially started! With the all the planning, shopping, baking, wrapping, traveling and more that comes with preparing for our holiday gatherings, so does stress. Fortunately, there are healthy ways you can reduce and manage it.
It’s already December, and the two major themes of the season are family and presents. While spending time with others and shopping for gifts is something many people look forward to all year, it can bring just as much stress as joy. Family gatherings can cause stress for a number of reasons, from having to see relatives you’d otherwise avoid to wanting to make sure everything goes perfectly according to plans. Whether you’re trying to stretch a tight budget or just searching endlessly to find the perfect gift for everyone, shopping can create unwanted stress as well. For those of us already struggling with depression and other mental health issues, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time.
There are a variety of ways to reduce stress and make the holidays more enjoyable. Changing your outlook is key. Think of all the people that are expecting something from you: bringing gifts and flowers, preparing food, attending a holiday party or two, going out for a meal with relatives in town. Our assumption often is that we have to do everything, we’re morally obligated. The truth is, it’s okay to say no or suggest alternatives. These are your friends, family, and co-workers and they’ll understand if you’re overwhelmed with commitments or short on time. Whether you only stop by the party for an hour or bring store-bought treats instead of baking grandma’s homemade recipe, what will matter most is your presence. Don’t overdo things, take a break, and save a little bit of time for yourself. The world will keep spinning.
As with changing your outlook, setting realistic expectations can have a dramatic effect on reducing stress. You may be trying to do everything just right to make the holidays perfect for your family and kids and spending your limited free time worrying that you forgot something or wondering what will happen if it all doesn’t go according to plans. On the other hand, you may be dreading the inevitable confrontations with and between family members and have been stressing about it non-stop since Thanksgiving. Take a minute or two to run through some of the potential scenarios and use history as a guide. Did everyone eat the dry turkey anyway? Did everyone leave physically unharmed? Often times we paint a cartoonish picture in our minds of what we think will happen and are almost always wrong.
Planning ahead is another critical component of the holiday season. While you don’t need to complete all of your shopping by Labor Day, it certainly helps to get things done sooner rather than later. At the very least write out a list to plan everything that still needs to be done and a checklist of what has to be done when the time comes. This is a great tip for year-round stress management. If your family and traditions grow with time and the agenda becomes too crowded, consider expanding the time frame of days to celebrate or alternating years with different families or in different locations rather than trying to do everything at once.
Staying physically and mentally healthy can often be overlooked or ignored during the holidays. We may choose to enjoy all the holiday treats because “tis the season” or cope with our situations by overeating and drinking. It’s important to maintain some level of physical activity and eat a healthy diet, even if you’re staying with family. You can say no to treats and snacking at least some of the time and plan ahead by bringing fruit salads and or veggie trays so you know there will be healthier options available. If you’re in a cramped home and it’s too cold to exercise outside you can still get some physical activity by walking around a supermarket or mall, or just by staying on your feet helping out in the kitchen or playing with the kids.
One of the biggest stresses in our lives is money, so during the holidays it’s especially important to create and stick to a budget. While it feels great to give and receive gifts, the joy and excitement of the exchange is far shorter lived than the stress of recovering from overspending and getting behind on financial goals. At the end of the day, many people don’t remember most of their gifts. Trying to make everyone happy with excessive gift giving at the cost of financial stress isn’t a good strategy for your overall health. Buying less, donating in someone’s name, or creating homemade gifts are options to consider to get more meaning and fulfillment per dollar spent. If you’re already financially stressed going into the holidays, talk to others about it – particularly your family and kids. They’ll survive without an abundance of expensive gifts which will force sacrifices in the months to come. Quality time with family is more valuable than gifts. If you would like help dealing with financial stress, call the National Foundation for Credit Counseling for free at 800-388-2227.
Lastly, understand and acknowledge your feelings. Everyone reacts differently emotionally when it comes to the holiday season based on our memories and experiences. If there’s reason to be sad, it’s okay to be sad and express your emotions rather than suppress them. Experiencing stress and anxiety to a degree is normal as a lot is happening socially and financially in our lives this time of year. The shorter days in winter cause some people to have symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that drains energy and can cause moodiness which can be treated with therapy, medications, or light therapy. If you’re feeling unusually depressed or suicidal, reach out and seek professional help from a doctor or mental health professional like a counselor or psychologist. There is a free Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.
The holidays are a stressful time of year for everyone in one form or another. It’s nearly impossible to avoid the potential stressors with reminders everywhere: nonstop Christmas music on the radio and in stores, shopping ads on TV every eight minutes, ads and pop-ups littering our computer browsers, and decorations up and down the streets. However, with planning and a realistic mindset we can prevent and cope with stress and anxiety, and enjoy the fun and traditions the holiday season brings.