Five Tips for Handling Holiday Stress (Plus a Bonus Tip!)

woman stressed out over christmas

Walk in any grocery store around the country right now and the first thing you see is Halloween candy piled high, front and center, on display in all its spooky orange and black glory. And so it begins: The Holiday Season. Along follows Thanksgiving, which comedian Lewis Black calls “Christmas: Part 1.” Next is Christmas itself, and then we end with a bang—literally—on New Year’s Eve. It’s a festive time, filled with parties, good cheer, camaraderie, and plenty of reasons to spend quality time with friends and family over delicious food and drink. People get revved up and excited for the holiday season to begin, yet for most of us, when we finally so make it through the two-month vortex, the main thing we feel is a huge sense of relief.

meditation at skyterra by lake

Kate Hannon leads a meditation by the lake.

If the holidays are so great, why is this feeling almost universal?

The fact is that along with all the good cheer, there’s also a tremendous amount of stress. For people prone to anxiety and depression, the holidays tend to amplify those feelings. Demands from others and the high expectations we place on ourselves take a tremendous amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy: work parties, family parties, hosting, preparing, cleaning, shopping, entertaining, spending—there’s not enough time to do it all, much less do it all perfectly. We’re overwhelmed, overworked, and we end up overindulging. I bet your stress level is rising just thinking about it. So let’s stop right here and re-group. Let’s imagine a holiday season that doesn’t turn us into a nation of emotional basket cases. Let’s explore five ways to get that seasonal stress under control (plus a bonus tip), and better yet—let’s prevent it from stealing your holiday cheer.

  1. Pause and Breathe.

    .All it takes is three deep, slow belly breaths to lower stress. Breathing this way switches you immediately from fight-or-flight to relax-and-rest mode by turning off your autonomic stress response, which is governed by your central nervous system. It will help you respond calmly instead of react unconsciously. That can be a very helpful tool, especially if holiday time means more interactions with people who push your buttons, send you into a frenzy, or just plain annoy you. Thirty seconds to a minute of belly breathing is a powerful way to soothe yourself and take direct control of your body and mind.

  1. Recognize, Identify, and Validate Your Feelings.

    This time of year can bring up grief and sadness if you can’t be with loved ones or if you’ve lost someone you love. Remember: it’s okay to feel whatever you feel. Sadness and grief are part of life. Allowing yourself to make honest contact with these emotions can help ease their intensity. You don’t have to pretend. If you miss someone and you’re sad, let yourself experience it. If you’ve lost a loved one and the grief returns, let yourself experience that, too. See your emotions; feel your emotions; process your emotions. That’s much better than ignoring them, tamping down on them, or beating yourself up for feeling them in the first place. Reach out to friends or even a professional counselor: talking works. Know you’re not alone. And watch out for going overboard trying to make everyone else happy with meals, gifts, or planning the perfect party. Don’t get me wrong—doing good things for others is admirable. But constantly sacrificing your own needs in favor of others leads to burnout, anger, and resentment. Be aware. Make time to take care of yourself. It may not be your first instinct, but this holiday season, try it out. Honor your feelings and try putting yourself first sometimes. Even if it means simply taking a few minutes alone to breath.

  1. Set Clear Boundaries.

    Learn how and when to say yes and no. This is the first step toward taking care of yourself. Simple boundaries, though sometimes uncomfortable, are empowering and essential for maintaining your sense of self during stressful times. If you can’t fit in another party, it’s okay to say no. If you don’t want another serving of Aunt Dorothy’s famous stuffing, it’s okay to say, “No thank you. I’m full.” Dorothy can handle it. Or maybe it’s the flipside. Treat yourself and say assertively, “You bet I’m having seconds!” Honor your body and your power. Don’t give the judgmental glare from across the room any weight: your body, your choice. Give yourself permission to express who you are fully and honestly. You’ll maintain your dignity and conserve precious energy at the same time.

  1. Don’t Just Buy Presents. Be Present.

    When you’re preoccupied with your to-do list, one thing is guaranteed: you’re not living in the present moment. Take care of your responsibilities, but also make time to unplug, go for a walk outside, savor each bite of every delicious holiday meal, get enough sleep, breathe, shop slowly, cook even more slowly, and notice the joy all around you. In a word, try to be mindful this holiday season. Mindfulness practice reduces stress, fosters a sense of well-being, boosts your immune system, and increases overall happiness. A 2010 Harvard study followed 2,250 people and gathered data at random intervals about what they were doing, whether they were thinking about their current activity or something else, and how happy they were at that moment. The researchers found on average, participant’s minds wandered 46.9% of the time, and concluded that mind-wandering “…is a better predictor of happiness [ed. or unhappiness] than the activities in which we are engaged.” The takeaway here is to be present, no matter what moment you find yourself in. Remember you’re a human being, not a human doing.

  1. Be Proactive, not Reactive.

    Why wait until the New Year to get healthy? You don’t need a resolution to get on the right track. If you want to have a different kind of holiday season, set yourself up for success by starting now. The things I outline above take practice. Get ahead of the game, hone your mindfulness skills, and build up your confidence so you’ve got a full arsenal of positive coping mechanisms in place before all the craziness begins. You’ll be ready for the stress that accompanies the big meals, celebrations, and the inevitable disruptions to your exercise routine. Connect with your body, mind, and emotions. Listen to your both your hunger and your satiety so you’re not tempted to overeat at every meal or indulge in too many sweet snacks at every party. Move your body every day. Stimulate your metabolism and enjoy the endorphin release. Exercise because it feels great—not out of guilt about those extra Christmas cookies. Get outside in the sunshine to increase your Vitamin D and prevent the onset of depressive symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Make nutritious snacks and keep them at hand, so if you’re on the go you don’t end up eating ravenously at a holiday buffet.

Remember, you get to choose how you respond to the holidays. Create your intention now. Ask yourself how you’d like this season to go—the same old same old, or something new, different, and invigorating? You have the power to make it turn out exactly how you want.

amber teaching yoga

Yoga with Amber in the treehouse

Bonus Tip #6: Treat Yourself to a Wellness Retreat

If you’re really serious about doing yourself a favor, if you’re truly after the ultimate “me time,” then here’s Super-Secret Holiday Stress-busting Tip #6: book a visit with us here at Skyterra. We’ll help you explore new ways to enrich your mind, body, and soul—and set you up for the best holiday season ever.