In general, the holidays can make the winter months some of the most stressful of the entire year. The pressure of keeping the house clean for hosting, spending money on gifts and travel, and seeing family and friends for the first time in a long time can all contribute to this holiday stress.
According to a report from the Harvard School for Neuroscience, 62 percent of Americans report an “elevated” level of stress during the holidays.
Not all stress is bad, however. Stress, in small amounts, can be a motivating factor that increases productivity. However, when stress builds to a level that overwhelms, risks to your physical and mental health start to mount, according to the National Institute.
Here at FHE Health, we want everyone in our community and beyond to be able to protect against the lasting damage to their health that stress can cause. Here are 10 strategies to avoid being bogged down by stress over the holiday season.
1. Get Holiday Shopping Done Early
Financial stress is a major factor around the holidays, and between reserving travel accommodations and gift-buying, you may have to tighten your belt more than you may have anticipated. Financial stress is heightened when there’s an element of panic involved, which is why saving all of your shopping for the last minute is a bad plan. Instead, start thinking about gift ideas months in advance and buy them as you find low prices, spreading the holiday financial burden over a greater period of time.
2. Don’t Feel Pressured to Over-Consume
Alcohol consumption is one of the defining qualities of most people’s holiday gatherings, from the night before Thanksgiving being named the heaviest drinking night of the year to events and festivities highlighting seasonal beverages like holiday ales and eggnog.
This can present pressure to keep drinking whatever is put in front of you, which can cause problems. Drinkaware, a UK-based alcohol support system, reports that continued alcohol consumption can lead to potential mental health risks, including anxiety and depression.
3. Keep Some Free Space on Your Calendar
While it can be fun to constantly see family and friends during the holiday season, a packed itinerary isn’t always conducive to your mental health. While activity can be fulfilling, it also pays to keep some days completely free during the holidays. Even if it’s as rare as one day a week, the value of relaxing and recharging your batteries cannot be understated during the holiday season.
4. Don’t Break Habits That Are Working
The holidays are full of parties and events that may ruin routines. Yet, routines are often what keep us grounded. If a routine is working it’s important that we continue it, even through the holidays. Identify the important events and meetings that you need to attend to keep a semblance of normalcy in your life. If you create too much distance in your life from the events and people you know are healthy for you, you may find yourself adrift.
5. Keep Nutrition in Mind
Many people don’t consider the effect of the so-called “holiday diet” on their mental health as much as they do their physical figure, but the constant intake of high-fat foods that are common during the holidays can do more than just pack on the pounds.
According to WebMD, your diet can have a major effect on your ability to cope with stress, and more nutrient-rich foods can help fight the stress inherent during the holidays.
6. Don’t Forget to Be Generous
Ever wonder why Mr. Scrooge is so unhappy? Selfishness, as it turns out, doesn’t pay: charity can actually benefit your ability to fight off the negative stress of the holiday season.
According to US News, generosity is able to satisfy the reward system that your brain uses to regulate dopamine and endorphins, making you feel tranquil and satisfied. This can go a long way towards giving you the positive feelings needed to counteract stress.
7. Make Sure to Keep Support Close
Having the support of a community at your back is necessary, no matter what the circumstances, but in high-stress holiday situations, having support to fall back on is important. Whether yours comes in the form of a 12-step addiction recovery program, a therapist, a support group, or simply close family and friends, having a group of people that have your back through anything is one of the best assets to manage stress, especially when stress threatens from a variety of different directions.
8. Don’t Feel Obligated
Holiday obligations can really weigh on you, especially when you’re making plans to visit with family members. Family gatherings often bring tension to the forefront — political and religious disagreements are common at dining room tables around the country.
As explained by Psychology Today, tension with family around the holidays is a major source of stress, and can potentially deal even more damage: fear and aggression are emotions that signal danger to your brain, making you more susceptible to anxiety or panic attacks.
If you have a supportive group of friends, consider spending more time with them than with certain members of your family this holiday season. In the long run, it’s better to avoid interactions that are nearly certain to add more stress to the equation, even if it means disconnecting from some members of your family.
9. Make Time For You
Everyone has something that helps them relax when they’re feeling stressed. Maybe it’s going for a nice, long run to clear your head, playing an instrument, picking away at a puzzle, or planning a project. Whatever works, make sure you make time for this important stress relief when the stress starts to build.
We’re often told that “me time” is selfish, that you should avoid putting yourself first. Not so, says WebMD. Taking just a few minutes a day to do something that makes you more relaxed and happy can significantly increase productivity and overall mental health.
10. Take Preventative Measures
Adopting these creative holiday stress management tips before the stress becomes overwhelming — rather than waiting until you’re frantic from stressors coming from all angles — is a great way to ensure that you provide for your mental health in an effective way, no matter what else is happening in your life.
With more credence being given to mental illness in the medical community, it’s time for everyone to become more aware of how to prevent mental illness. The holidays can be very rewarding and enjoyable but also very stressful — if you feel that you or a loved one are having difficulty coping with the stress of the holidays, learn more about the mental health rehab programs and services offered at FHE Health.
11. Say No When Needed
The holiday season is full of events and special occasions. However, an invitation isn’t an obligation to attend. If you’re not feeling up to a gathering, regardless of who’s hosting, or don’t want to take on extra holiday tasks like staying late to decorate the office with ornaments, just say no. You don’t need to provide an explanation or try to justify your choices, either; “no” is a complete sentence and is a perfectly adequate response when you’re feeling the pressure. A boring work party isn’t worth your mental health.
12. Replace Gifts With Gestures
For those living on a tight budget, the expenses of the holiday season can be hard to handle. With so many parties and gift-giving occasions on the horizon, stress about spending can augment other forms of holiday anxieties. But there’s no need to go all out on presents for everyone. Where possible, replace tangible store-bought gifts with gestures, like a home-cooked meal, a homemade scarf, a book of cute coupons or anything else that lets you show how much you care without breaking the bank.
13. Don’t Neglect Hobbies
It’s not uncommon for the holiday season to eat up a substantial amount of time. From shopping to family gatherings, free time can diminish significantly when the holidays come to call. However, do your best to maintain hobbies, even when time is limited. Things like reading, writing, knitting, sports, exercise or even binging a good TV show can be a great way to stay sane when the world around you is full of stressors. The things that keep your spirits high the rest of the year deserve a spot in your holiday schedule, too.
14. Play Hooky
During the holidays, most people will have a full plate. Between year-end obligations at work, family plans and even having the kids home from school, there’s a lot of pressure around the holiday season. Instead of letting a full schedule drag you down, consider playing a little hooky from time to time. This may mean canceling plans that are hard to fit into your schedule or taking a mental health day from work to cut down on the stress. You’re not a superhero, and you can’t be everywhere and do everything at once.
15. Speak Up
When you’re feeling holiday season stress, you don’t have to stay silent. Instead, speak up. The holidays can be stressful for everyone, so there’s no need to hide negative feelings. If you’re anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, tap into your support system. Let your friends and loved ones know you’re not feeling like yourself. Keeping quiet will only make things worse, so never be afraid to tell your loved ones the truth.
16. Cut Corners
During the holiday season, it’s common to feel like you need to be your best self, whether that means hosting a massive meal or bringing your famous homemade cookies to your work potluck. If you’re feeling unnecessarily stressed or pressured to exceed expectations, it’s okay to cut corners. Let the gift wrapping station at the mall handle prepping packages, and buy cookies at the store instead of baking them. No one is perfect, and taking the easy way out from time to time can mean the difference between anxiety and enjoyment.
17. Set a Budget
The holidays are expensive, and it’s easy for spending to mount if you’re not paying close attention. Instead of running your savings dry trying to buy presents for your friends, family and coworkers, outfits for parties or food for fancy dinners, set a budget in advance. When you know what to expect, you can be sure you have the cash on hand to cover your expenses without breaking the bank. This also lets you plan ahead so you can best cut costs, like setting a dollar limit on presents, hitting the thrift shop for a new holiday outfit or passing on that black-tie party if there’s no wiggle room in your budget.
18. Let Others Help
It’s only natural to try to carry the load yourself, but letting others help you can be a great way to minimize stress. Many people genuinely want to contribute but are shut down by a host who feels obligated to handle everything. For example, if you’re hosting a big dinner and your guests ask if they can bring something, you can be honest about the help you need. From letting a spouse handle the wrapping to asking Aunt Sally to bring a salad to Christmas dinner, there are plenty of ways other people can lighten your load.
19. Identify No-No Topics
There are many common conversation topics that can trigger stress, such as politics or religion. Rather than letting subjects that raise your blood pressure and your anxiety levels ruin your holidays, make sure your friends and family members know in advance that these talking points are off-limits. If you want a politics-free party, brief your guests when you invite them so they know not to debate health care or the Supreme Court at the dinner table. And if these conversation topics do arise, don’t be afraid to remind visitors of the rules and put a stop to arguments before they get heated.
20. Get Fresh Air
In many parts of the country, the holiday season is synonymous with winter weather, which can mean snow, rain and ice. As such, many people don’t get outside much between work, parties and shopping for presents. However, fresh air can be an important part of staying happy and healthy. Even if you can only squeeze in a quick walk every few days or find an hour to shovel snow here and there, a little fresh air and vitamin D can do wonders for your mental wellness. If you’re tight on time, ask your friends or family to go with you to combine social obligations with healthy habits.