Stress is an inevitable part of our modern lives. Yet for a number of reasons, this time of year is especially difficult. Holiday stress is that special combination of end-of-year work deadlines, added personal commitments, and a near universal sense of frantic busyness.
While we all know it’s coming, holiday stress still manages to blindside us every year. But why is that?
For one, the additional pressure we feel during the holidays isn’t just more of the same stress and burnout we feel all year round. It’s the unfamiliar stress of dealing with family and other relationships, travel, additional social obligations, and of course the cost that comes with it all.
However, holidays are supposed to be restful, not stressful. So, rather than take holiday stress on the chin, here are a few strategies for lessening the pressure of the most wonderful time of the year.
Change your perception around what stress is
According to the Stress Management Society, the fast breathing, muscle tension, and jitters you feel when stressed are part of your mind’s fight or flight response. Which was a great tool for protecting our ancestors from predators. But for the modern person? Not so much.
Holiday stress isn’t life threatening (unless you’re John McClane). However, just as our ancestors used the boost of energy from stress to survive, we can similarly reframe holiday stress into something more positive and beneficial.
When Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard looked at the symptoms of stress—dry mouth, racing heart, heightened emotions—she found they held an uncanny similarity to the symptoms of excitement.
After a number of tests, she proposed that:
“People who reframed their anxiety as excitement perform better than those who try to bury it with calmness.”
Think about what’s causing holiday stress for you: The added pressure of visiting with loved ones, showing gratitude and care, and getting out of town for a few days? When it comes down to it, these aren’t meant to be stressors. If anything, you should be excited by them.
In her TED Talk Making Stress your Friend, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests a few actionable ways we can reframe these stressful situations:
- Recognize the physical reaction you’re having to the situation, whether that’s your pounding heart, sweaty palms, or faster breathing
- Now, instead of telling yourself these are signs that you aren’t dealing with the situation well, tell yourself they are signs that your body is energized and preparing you to meet the challenge ahead
According to McGonigal, when we reframe stress in this way, the physically effects on our body stop being harmful and start to look a lot like what we experience during moments of joy and courage.
“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”
Use the extra time off to give your mind some extra time off
One of the best parts of the holiday season is that most of us have a bit of extra downtime. Unfortunately, that time is rarely set aside for recovery. Instead, we rush to fill our calendars with events, travel, and other holiday stress-inducing activities.
While this might just be part of the season, we still need to limit our exposure to stressful situations.
Think of your ability to handle stress like building any muscle. Unrelenting exercise simply tears it down and leads to injury. However, rest in between sessions and your muscles regenerate, coming back stronger. And while you might not have long periods of downtime this holiday, here are a few short recovery exercises to help you get the most of what you do have:
Build mindfulness with a 10-minute meditation practice
Multiple studies have confirmed meditation helps us to build increased calmness and focus and better handle stress just from a few minutes set aside each day for mindfulness.
So, if you don’t already have a meditation practice, here’s a quick one you can get started with this holiday season:
- Find a comfortable place to sit. Try to maintain a posture that is alert and erect without being too rigid. Make sure you feel relaxed.
- Close your eyes and take a few slow breaths. Use this time to loosen your body from your head down to your toes while you take a few more deep breaths.
- Now, start to notice the natural sensations in your body—any discomfort, warmth, coolness or anywhere that stands out. Just be aware of those sensations; don’t try to change them.
- Pick just one sensation—maybe it’s the feeling of your breath going in and out—and devote your full attention to it.
- When your mind wanders (and it will!), bring your attention back to the breath. Don’t force it or get frustrated, but simply return your attention to the present any time you notice your mind slipping away.
- Do this for however long feels good for you—1, 10, or 30 minutes. And when you’re ready open your eyes. That’s it.
Find quick calmness with controlled breathing
Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness, and even boost your immune system (to help fight off the holiday colds). When your mind is racing or you’re feeling the effects of holiday stress, find a quiet place and run through these steps:
- Sit up straight on the floor or on the edge of a chair
- Place your hands on your belly
- As you inhale, lean forward and expand your belly
- As you exhale, squeeze your breath out and curl forward while leaning backwards. Make sure you exhale until you’re out of breath.
- Repeat 20 times
Develop a strong self awareness through journaling
The sort of “expressive writing” we do when journaling has been shown to have a myriad of positive effects, from better sleep and a stronger immune system to, you guessed it, less stress. You’ll probably have a million things on your mind over the holidays, and so taking a few minutes a day to write about them can be incredibly helpful.
We’ve written a full guide to journaling with some suggested apps to keep you on track, but here are the fundamentals to help get you started:
- Use your journal to process emotions and events: By writing about your emotions related to a stressful event, studies have found you’ll be able to distance yourself from it and become less emotionally reactive. So go ahead and vent about the office holiday party or your mother-in-law, but be sure to dive deep into why you feel that way and what you can do about it.
- Write about your best self: It’s easy to focus on the negatives when you’re stressed. However, a journal is a great opportunity to break out of the cycle of negative self talk and instead focus on the positives. Even better, writing about your best self and future life goals has been shown to produce long-lasting positive thoughts.
Take advantage of the additional people around you for support
Much of the holiday stress we feel comes from our relationships and added social obligations. However, while having more people around you can be an added source of stress, it can also be an opportunity to relieve it. Here are a few ways you can take advantage of the added audience provided by the holidays.
Build resilience by reconnecting with family and friends
It’s common to retreat when we’re feeling stressed. We cancel plans, skip events, or just try to get away from it all. But friends and social support are some of the best forms of therapy we have to alleviate holiday stress.
When Yale Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Southwick interviewed a number of people who had shown resilience against the worst sort of odds (think, prisoners of war or trauma survivors) he found one thing in common:
“The most resilient people actively reach out for support. They don’t sit around and wait.”
According to Dr. Southwick, the first thing you should do if you’re feeling stressed is map out your social network: Who is in your life? Who can you count on? Write these names down and get a picture of what your personal network looks like. Next, reach out to them. Luckily, the holidays afford us excuses to reach out to people we know care for us. So use that opportunity to make yourself and your needs known.
Don’t just take support, give it
Stress affects us on such a base level that we can even pass it on to those around us. A 2014 study found our stress response can even be triggered by simply observing someone else who’s showing signs of stress.
During the holidays, this can become a vicious cycle. The more people facing stress, the more we see stress, the more we feel stress, the more we pass that stress on. That’s why it’s important to not only look out for yourself, but to actively try to help those around you. Of course, we’re all in this together. But more than that, giving this kind of support can be beneficial to our own levels of holiday stress.
As Wharton School professor Adam Grant explains:
“Time spent helping others, sharing our knowledge and providing social and emotional support gives meaning and purpose to our lives,” which, in turn lowers our levels of stress.
On a physical level, helping others deal with their stress can also help protect us from feeling stressed ourselves. In her TED talk, Dr. McGonigal explains how when we help others who feel stressed, our bodies release a chemical called oxytocin, which among other things, makes us feel happier, calmer, and more at ease.
So, if you’re feeling stressed, try not to only look after yourself. It’s the season of giving, and helping others helps you.
The holidays can be a stressful time of the year, if we let them be. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, try these techniques. And remember, what makes the holidays stressful can actually be used to your advantage.
Do you have any special tricks for dealing with holiday stress? Let us know in the comments.