13 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress

Whether you’re a die-hard Christmas fan or you just want to make it through another painstaking family dinner, the holiday season can have some stressful moments. Between trying not to bust the budget on Christmas shopping, listening to Uncle Bobby’s conspiracy theories again, and navigating everyone else’s holiday expectations, the holidays can spin up our anxiety alarms. This time of year can be frantic—and downright frustrating. So how do we reduce holiday stress or prevent it before it happens?

What Is Holiday Stress?

The extra expenses. Angry in-laws. Long hours at the office. Exhausted and sugared-up kids. Cold weather and seasonal darkness. Final exams, sporting events and recitals. Absent romantic partners. Profound loneliness . . . Individually, we can handle each of these stressors as they come. But during the holidays, everything hits at once. Throw in an election season and Aunt Suzie’s surprise visit, and our fight-or-flight stress response systems are ringing off the hook.

In most cases, stress is normal and good. It’s when it becomes overwhelming, heavy and all-at-once that we lose perspective. When we experience stress, our muscles tighten, our heart rates spike, and our bodies flood with hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. We scan our surroundings for danger over a platter of steaming turkey and stuffing. We’re trying to not die—with Bing Crosby crooning in the background.

Holiday stress is the worst. But there are things we can do about it.

This season, give yourself and others some grace—a lot of it. Make no mistake: Stressful things will happen. But the exciting thing is we get to choose how to respond to them.

13 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress

Refusing to let stress and anxiety run your life is a minute-by-minute choice. It’s a daily decision. This holiday season, let’s put in the effort to get our minds and hearts in a good place before buying presents or heading to the in-laws’ house for Christmas dinner.

I want to share 13 ways to reduce holiday stress before it comes—so you can spend your time on what really matters to you.

1. Clearly picture the Christmas you want to have.

Set expectations for yourself and others by painting a picture of what you want your Christmas to look like. Be crystal clear. Here are some things to think about before the holidays start:

  • Who’s sitting around the table at mealtime?
  • What are we eating?
  • What are we talking about—or not talking about?
  • How am I connecting with my friends and family?
  • Which Christmas movies are we watching?
  • What presents are we giving—or not giving—each other?

Share your picture with your loved ones so they can understand what you’re imagining. Ask them to paint a picture of what they want too so you can be on the same page.

2. Set boundaries.

Over the holidays, it might seem like your mom, father-in-law or second cousin call the shots.

Wrong. You choose.

You get to decide where you go, how long you stay there, who you invite into your home, and how much money you’ll spend.

It’s important to set those boundaries before you kick off the Christmas festivities.

Before you commit to anything, decide what your limits are for:

  • Traveling: Will you drive or fly? How long will you visit?
  • Hosting guests: Will they stay for three days? What about two weeks? Can the dog come too?
  • Spending: How much money are you budgeting for presents this year? How many gifts should each kid get?
  • Food: What will you eat? How many cookies are too many?
  • Conflict: How will you handle a disagreement if one breaks out?

By the way . . . don’t drive or fly thousands of miles to a place that’s inhospitable or threatening. You can say no. But once you decide and commit to seeing family, do it with a good attitude. Find joy in the hard moments. If you choose to go, you’re also choosing to be a good sport instead of a grinch. This is what it means to be mature.

3. Avoid family conflict.

Even the best families can drive you nuts. So, this year, before you even pack your bags, think about conflicts that might pop up with family. If your dad has a pattern of talking bad about a particular group of people, don’t be surprised when he starts one of his rants. You can’t change him—but you can decide how you respond.

  • You can ask someone to stop. It’s possible to be direct and still be kind.
  • You can get up and leave. Sometimes walking away to take a breath is the best thing you can do.
  • Create a plan of action. Decide ahead of time how you’ll respond if tensions start to build.
  • Communicate your plan ahead of time. Make it clear you don’t want to talk about politics or your little brother’s addiction.

If someone pushes back on your boundaries, you can leave! Pay attention to when you feel uncomfortable, awkward, unsafe, embarrassed or trapped. If someone is drunk, angry, using foul language, or telling repulsive jokes, you get to decide if and when you walk away.

4. Focus on what you can control.

There are only two things on planet Earth you can control: your thoughts and your actions. You can’t control what your parents say around the dinner table. You can’t control your kids’ attitudes.

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If you feel stressed this Christmas, write down the things that are in your control. Take ownership of these things—like buying groceries, getting in a walk, or wrapping presents. Everything else that’s not in your control, like the weather or other people’s reactions to overbaked potatoes, can be let go. There’s nothing you can do about them, so set those expectations down by focusing on your own responsibilities.

5. Know your role in the situation. 

If you’re going to your girlfriend’s house for Christmas and you have to sleep on the uncomfortable couch and eat her family’s weird food, remember: The world doesn’t revolve around you. It’s not your house. Your role is to support your partner, so embrace it. You chose to go, so decide to make hilarious memories instead of whining about the accommodations.

And if you’re the one inviting your significant other to family dinner, be a gracious host or hostess. This includes paying attention to (and accommodating) food allergies or dining preferences. Remember that your guest is missing out on their traditions. They might be sad they’re missing out on time with their family, so do the best you can to be supportive.

6. Say no.

I love Christmas as much as the next person, but no matter who you are, it’s absurd to try to attend a million white elephant parties, ornament exchanges and cookie-decorating parties.

Be honest about what you can handle and say no when it’s too much. Instead of squeezing in five Christmas parties, pick one or two. Prioritize your family’s time and only commit to what you want to do. Focus on quality, not quantity. 

7. Take a social media break.

There’s an overwhelming amount of data, nonsense and news in our country right now. Not only is it all over our TVs, but it also floods our social media feeds. It’s making us insane. And those perfectly curated Instagram and Pinterest Christmas feeds will only lead to comparison and keeping up with the Joneses.

Instead, spend more time looking into your kids’ eyes than staring at screens. Hold hands, not video game controllers. Throw a football or kick a soccer ball—in real life. Choose human connection, joy and laughter over like buttons and retweets. Each one of your electronic devices comes with an off button. Use it.

8. Make a Christmas budget.

Do it. Right now. 

A budget creates boundaries for your wallet (or bank account). Budgeting helps reduce stress because it gives you a plan for your money. Make a zero-based budget every month before the month begins. You decide where every single dollar in your bank account goes—especially during the holidays.

Budgeting for Christmas helps you avoid impulse purchases and keeps you from spending too much on white elephant gifts. So, make a budget and stick to it. You’ll be glad you did. 

9. Don’t overdo the sugar. 

When it comes to the holidays, too much spiked eggnog or too many of Mom’s famous sugar cookies can be a recipe for disaster. Yeah—it all tastes like an Uber Eats delivery straight from Mrs. Claus’ kitchen. But too much sugar messes up your natural hormone responses, blood sugar, insulin levels, and your brain’s neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers). 

Mix that with a lack of sleep from caffeine and alcohol, plus a packed schedule, and you’ve got a perfect storm for an anxiety rush. Limit how much sugar you eat and feed your body nutritious food as much as possible.

10. Get plenty of sleep and movement.

Anxiety affects at least 40 million people in the U.S.1 And one of the most powerful tools you have to reduce anxiety is sleep. So, instead of staying up late for the third night in a row bingeing Hallmark movies, prioritize your sleep. It’ll keep your stress and anxiety at bay and help your immune system stay healthy.

And don’t forget to get outside and move. I don’t care how cold it is—put on some extra layers and just do it (or at least get into the gym). Exercise helps your body process and release stress hormones, and nature is important for our emotional and physical health. Here are some ways you can stay active during the holidays:

  • Bundle up and go on a walk to see Christmas lights in the neighborhood.
  • Get an epic snowball fight going with the neighbors (play is exercise too).
  • Walk through a Christmas tree farm.
  • Go ice-skating.
  • Build a snowman in the front yard.
  • Go for a hike or nature walk.
  • Go sledding.

Nobody wants to be sick at Christmastime—and exercising, getting outside, and resting are all natural immune-boosting activities that will help you feel strong, peaceful and healthy.

11. Take some quiet time for yourself. 

Keep your sanity by scheduling some quiet time to do things you enjoy. Read a book. Do a Christmas devotional. Sit down for five or 10 minutes with a meditation app. Give yourself some breathing room between parties, travel schedules, work deadlines and shopping.

Another key is to try to stick to your normal routine. If a normal day starts with pouring yourself a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, don’t skip it. If you exercise every day, keep exercising. Routines help you stay calm and focused—plus, it’s a great way to stay sane, especially when you’re sharing a bathroom with your in-laws.

12. Ask good questions. 

I’m willing to bet you don’t see your extended family all that often—so when you do, why not take time to get to know them on a deeper level? Instead of making awkward small talk, really dig in and see if you can learn something about them you didn’t know before. Be curious, not judgmental.

Ask your grandparents for their best piece of marriage advice. Ask your 5-year-old nephew which superhero he’d want to be and why. And if you need some help thinking of fun, silly or interesting questions, check out these Questions for Humans Conversation Cards.

13. Connect with the people around you.

Christmastime is meant to be filled with joy, gratitude, belly laughs and lingering conversations over the dinner table. But connection doesn’t happen by accident. Don’t get so caught up in the mania that you forget to enjoy the people you’re doing all this for.

And do your best to respond well to holiday stress this year. Yeah, the holidays can be crazy—but we can choose to be gracious and generous with ourselves and our loved ones.

And one of the best ways to deal with holiday stress is to connect with your loved ones on a deeper (and more fun) level. Check out my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life, to learn ways to connect with others so you can begin building a non-anxious life (including around the holidays).

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