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6 Ways to Stave Off Holiday Stress

This can be a difficult time of year. Here are some ways to cope.

It's almost become a cliche, how stressful the holidays can be. There is the potential for family drama, there are more social demands, and taking care of yourself and your body becomes harder and harder when party food and alcohol are more plentiful than ever. Spending increases, which can raise anxiety. For people who have lost a loved one, the holidays can be a particularly dark time as they reckon with the absence of the person who had meant so much to them. For people in the Northern Hemisphere, the holidays correspond to darker days and colder nights. Add to all of this the expectations of being festive and joyous—along with the potential demands of making holiday "magic" for children—and some people would rather push the "fast forward" button on the season altogether.

Thankfully, there are certain things that you can do to try to keep your stress in check during this season. Here are the techniques that I have seen to be most helpful for my clients in reducing their distress over the holiday season.

1) Say "no."

Many times I work with someone who feels completely overwhelmed by the obligations they have taken on, from attending certain parties to organizing volunteer missions. And while being there for others is important, it's equally important to know your limits and not overpromise. The natural tendency is to avoid the initial discomfort of declining something in order to keep the peace; we tell ourselves we'll just reevaluate later. But often, this leads to disappointing someone even further if we cancel at the last minute or fail to meet their expectations. Be clear-eyed and realistic about what you are capable of taking on and still taking care of yourself, and be proactive in setting limits.

2) Pause.

Nothing perpetuates the stress response like the inability to take a moment, slow down your breathing, and reengage with the present world around you. The classic holiday hustle and bustle can be invigorating—but also exhausting. Take a moment each day to practice some mindfulness exercises and give your body and mind a break, from meditations to diaphragmatic breathing to visualizations or progressive muscle relaxation. If you continue to go on autopilot for days at a time, you could be wearing down your mental and physical resistance without even realizing it.

3) Build-in buffers and rehearse exit strategies.

When you know that an event, experience, or specific day will be emotionally trying for you, it can be very helpful to plan ahead, thus increasing your sense of predictability and controllability of the situation (which in turn decreases your response). Dreading a holiday dinner with your mother, who always criticizes your weight? Think in advance of things you could say to shut down critical conversations, parts of the house you could escape to with whatever excuse, or specific people you trust to help buffer you from insults. Know that your first New Year's Eve as a divorced person will make you lonely? Plan out some ways to nourish yourself and help mitigate those feelings, by being with a good friend, treating yourself to a special experience, or even just giving yourself permission to go to bed early and pretend that the night is just like any other.

4) Connect with the bigger picture.

Finding a sense of meaning in the holidays—even if they are not picture-perfect—can help you reduce your focus on the more trivial stressors. You may choose to ask yourself why you do what you do during this season. Is it to honor meaningful traditions, spiritually or in your family? Is it a way to reconnect with your faith? Is it to look out for those less fortunate or create memories that your children will be heartened by for years to come? Is it to find some cheer in an otherwise dark time? The less that you feel like you are just going through the motions but instead that there is a deeper sense of purpose involved, the more fulfilled you will be during this time.

5) Reach out to those who mean something to you.

We get a mood boost from helping others, and the holidays can be a special time for cultivating the good feelings of furthering your connection to your fellow humans. But sometimes there is a fine line between checking social obligations off a list versus truly being nourished by them, just as the difference between doing some charity work because you're "supposed to" versus truly understanding the difference you are making in someone's life is stark as well. What relationships, or causes, do you value most? And how can you use the holidays to make a further connection to them?

6) Mind your body.

If there's one main thing in the way of self-care that goes downhill throughout December, it tends to involve our bodies. We don't sleep as well, we stop spending as much time outdoors as the cold and dark set in, and we guzzle egg nog and eat enough cookies to fill an oil tanker. Though everyone deserves some indulgence, and flexibility is the key to healthy habits, it's important to practice moderation when you can. Hangovers—whether caused by alcohol or a more general sense of unhealthy behaviors—often feel far worse than setting limits. And the healthier your body is during this time, the more resilient your emotions can be as well.

More from Andrea Bonior Ph.D.
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