How to Handle Stress During the Holidays

Is Christmas stress making it hard to enjoy the holiday season?  The winter holidays are some of the most wonderful, enjoyable times of the year, but also one of the most stressful. 

While we might enjoy the moments spent with family, opening presents, eating Christmas dinner, or having a blast at the New Year’s party, there are still many stressful moments in between.

What is less fun is the time spent driving in the holiday traffic, shopping for all those presents, an endless to-do list, cooking that Christmas dinner, and paying the credit card bill for your New Year’s Eve expenditures.

Yes, the stress can really get to you and even ruin your enjoyment of the holiday. We want you to enjoy your holiday season, so we put together our best holiday stress tips to help you slow down and make it into the new year as stress-free as possible.

 

Why Managing Holiday Stress is Important

Although holiday stress is somewhat temporary, it can still be harmful to your health. Unmanaged stress impacts our short and long-term health and well-being.

First, when you are overly stressed other health habits tend to go out the window. You start craving comfort foods, your sleep is impacted, and you probably’ don’t focus on exercise much. 

Not to mention, the holidays are already a busy time with lots of treats around. If you are not managing your stress well it can be almost impossible to say “no” to that extra serving of cake or holiday treat.  

While enjoying some holiday treats is not a problem, if left unchecked, all of these unhealthy habits can impact your health over time.

In the short-term, the problem with getting stressed over the winter holidays is that you’re more likely to get sick. Being sick can put a serious damper on all your holiday plans. 

Stress can dampen your immunity, and the cold will just make you more susceptible to colds, flus, coughs, and other illnesses. The last thing you want is to spend the first days of your brand new year in bed or miss a holiday party because you aren’t feeling well.

In the long-term, chronic stress can impact normal body functioning and increase the risk of disease. Stress disrupts normal immune function, digestion, heart health, sleep and reproduction. Over time this may lead to the development of illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.

Focusing on handling your Christmas stress can help you enjoy them more, along with improving your short and long-term health.

 

5 Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress

Want to beat the holiday stress? Here are a few tips to help you manage, cope, and prevent stress these winter holidays:

  • Take time for yourself. You know you’re going to spend a lot of time getting ready for your holidays, doing last-minute shopping, and preparing your house for all the family fun. There is so much to do!

Don’t get so caught up in it all that you fail to take time to relax, unwind, and enjoy yourself. Carve out a chunk of time every day—at least 30 to 60 minutes — where you can do something you like: read a book, watch TV, take a nap, listen to music, work out, and so on. 

Prioritizing taking time for YOU instead of only focusing on your to-do list is one of the best ways to manage holiday stress.

  • Make time for exercise. One of the best ways to manage holiday stress in addition to making time for yourself, is to prioritize exercise. A good sweat session boosts endorphins and lowers stress. When we get busy, this is usually the first habit we drop. And, no shopping does not count as cardio. 

Instead, try to make exercise a priority during the holiday season. Find a workout you love, so you are more likely to stick to it. Schedule your workouts like you would any other task. Aim to get at least 30 minutes a day, even on your busiest days.

  • Manage your expectations. A lot of holiday stress comes from unmet expectations or setting our standards too high. We all want to have the “perfect” holiday, but sometimes trying to make things perfect just makes everything more stressful. You may have an idea of how you want your holidays to be: sitting together around the fire, laughing, playing games, enjoying carols, and so on. But, the images in our head aren’t always in line with reality.

Instead of clinging to those expectations, prepare yourself to let some of the things go and accept what is. You may not be able to do all the fun things you had in mind, and that can just add to the holiday stress.

Instead, focus on what’s important. The holidays are about reflection and enjoying time with your family. When you stay relaxed and present in the moment, you can enjoy the time you do have, rather than worrying about what you’re NOT getting to or what might not be quite “perfect”.

  • Work with a team. You don’t have to be the only one in charge of coordinating Christmas dinner, the New Year’s Eve party, or shopping for Christmas presents. Your friends, spouse, parents, or even your older children can get involved. It takes a team to make the holidays come to life, just ask Santa and his helpers/reindeer.

You may be the kind of person who likes to do it all yourself because you might be holding on to the idea that you are the only one that can do things “right”. But the idea of perfection is just going to make the stress worse. 

Learn to let go and delegate tasks whenever possible—it will take the load off your shoulders and reduce your holiday stress. Many hands make for light work!

  • Plan ahead. Frequently, it’s the last minute scrambling to find the perfect gift that stresses us out! With the holidays there are many things you can plan ahead of time to help with managing holiday stress.

For example, start shopping for your family’s Christmas presents as early as October, and buy them to store in a closet. That way, you don’t have to do any last-minute Christmas shopping.

 

Order Christmas cards in November, so they are ready to go once December arrives. Send them out right after Thanksgiving. 

 

Or consider going digital with your holiday cards, there are many low-cost options to send a nice e-mail to loved ones. With just a quick email and no postage you can easily wish important people a happy holiday.

When preparing for Christmas dinner, buy your turkey or ham well before Thanksgiving and keep it in the freezer. 

 

Also, stock up on as many of the canned, dried, and packaged items as possible. You’ll have no problem buying fresh produce a few days before Christmas, but all the harder-to-find or essential items will be sitting in your pantry. The more you plan ahead, the less you’ll have to do around the holidays.

Bonus Holiday Tips

We really want you to feel your best this holiday, so in addition to our 5 tips to reduce holiday stress, here are a few more bonus tips:

  • Be realistic with what you can do. Can you really spend all day at work then come home to a house filled with kids, chores, and meals to take care of, AND bake cookies and treats on top of all that? The answer: probably not. This is why it’s important not to take on too much, or you will burn yourself out.

There are certain things many people feel they “need” to do over the holidays: bake cookies for the neighbors, organize a block party, invite family or friends over, go caroling, or decorate the house. 

But why do you NEED to do all those things? Sometimes when we say “yes” we don’t consider the commitments we already have. 

Taking on too much is just going to add to your holiday stress, and they may not contribute to your holiday enjoyment as much as you’d expect.

If you try to do too much, you’re going to feel that holiday stress mounting with every task you fail to accomplish. It’s time to be realistic with your time expenditures. 

Before the holidays even begin, think about what you have the energy and resources for. Get rid of anything that adds to your burden, learn to say no to things that aren’t that important, or pass the responsibility to someone else.

  • Focus on the fun. Instead of trying to do everything, focus on the fun things that happen during the holiday. Start by identifying all the things that make you happy. Sometimes we take on tasks because we are trying to meet other people’s expectations or are afraid of being judged. Managing holiday stress is about letting all of those expectations go.

Focus instead on what you think is fun and important. Allow the “nice but not critical” activities to fall by the wayside, and make spending time with family and having fun your priority.

  • Make a list. One of the best ways to combat stress is to know exactly what you need to do. It’s easier to get stressed if you have a lot of things floating around in your mind, and you can never really focus on getting any of them done.

Sit down before the holidays and make a list of all the things you need to do in the month of December. Rank them in order of importance, then in order of how soon you can check them off the list.

Every day, put a small dent in that list of to-dos. This goes hand in hand with “planning ahead”, and it will allow you to see how much progress you’ve made as the days go by. This visual marking of progress will help you to manage your holiday stress.

Reducing Stress Around Holiday Food

During the holidays, let your food add joy, not stress. Typically when we think of the holidays we think of indulging in treats or over eating at holiday events. For many, the idea of gaining weight can turn into a holiday stressor but depriving yourself of holiday treats can be just as upsetting or unrealistic.

Preparing a strategy to maintain a healthy routine before the holidays is a great way to reduce added stress all while still getting to enjoy some of your favorite seasonal treats. 

One tip is to make sure you don’t skip meals before any holiday dinners. Typically, when we skip meals we end up overeating and stuff ourselves with food that isn’t worth the excess calories. 

Instead, have a light snack before your celebration and go into your dinner with a clear mindset so that you can really focus on enjoying the foods you want to indulge in. 

By not walking into your holiday celebration with a starved mentality, you will keep from scarfing down the entire buffet. When you starve yourself, you will have a hard time maintaining control and thinking clearly around food.  Making smart decisions comes from having a clear mind and being hungry/stressed will contribute to making poor decisions. Enjoy your favorite foods while making smart choices.

Start any party by surveying the options available. Not every food is your favorite and many foods are available other times of the year. Pick a few favorites that you will indulge in. Stick with those that are hard to find during other seasons. 

For example, maybe your grandmother only makes a sweet potato pie once a year and its your favorite. That should be one food item you choose to enjoy. Try to make those selections ahead of time, so you can hit the buffet for your favorites first.

Once the meal begins, try serving yourself smaller portions that will force you to break up your dining experience. Most people have been taught to “eat everything on your plate”, which means a dish filled to the brim and a night stacked with excess calories. 

Instead of getting stuffed, serve yourself small portions or try each dish one at a time. This will help you slow down while eating and allow your stomach’s satiation cues to let you know when enough is enough. 

It will also help you prioritize the items worth that extra trip to the kitchen and keep you from scarfing down the extra calories from that casserole you don’t even like.

Structure you’re gathering around activities and not just the meal time. When you surround your celebration with games/dancing/socializing you remove the option for constant grazing which is the easiest way to unconsciously pack on the calories. 

Separating your celebration space from the dining area is a great way to do this and can open up the night for more positive memories to be created.

Have a Fun Holiday

If you let stress get the best of you, you’re going to have a tense, worried, and nerve-wracking holiday. You may even end up getting sick and spending Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve in bed because of it!

Instead of letting the stress overwhelm you, take active steps to combat the winter holiday stress. The simple tips above will go a long way toward keeping you cool as a cucumber and enjoying every minute of your winter holidays.

References:

  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet

Jaime Rangel, RD

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