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It’s the Most Stressful Time of the Year

Reducing (not eliminating) stress can help bring balance back to your day.

Key points

  • The holidays can be stressful for many of us, overshadowing the joy of the season.
  • Some stress is actually healthy. The goal should be to reduce, not eliminate, stress and achieve a balance in your work and life.
  • De-stressing is a learned skill that takes time, but it will build resilience and prepare you for future high-stress periods.
Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
Source: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

The holiday season is upon us. For some, it’s a joyful opportunity to connect with loved ones, decorate the house, and take time off from work and other daily obligations. For others, it’s a time marked with stress and expectation. After two previous holiday seasons overshadowed by the pandemic, many of us are still struggling to return to even our prior “normal” levels of stress. The holidays are not the time to take on even more stress—but it might be the right time to reconsider how much you have balanced your work and the rest of your life. As with so many things in 2022, it might not be productive to try to return to whatever your pre-pandemic work-life balance was. But this might be the time to think about how to better balance your work life now, or to reconsider your priorities as we go into 2023.

How to rebalance work and life and do things you enjoy

Keep expectations realistic. As much as we focus on the importance of reducing stress, we also need to remember that some stress is not only inevitable, but it can be healthy. This is especially true if you recognize good stress and embrace it. So before you overcommit to a goal of eliminating stress, protect yourself from just creating a new problem. The key is to figure out what is too much. One simple test: If you are so stressed that you can’t engage in activities that you find enjoyable and relaxing, you’re too stressed. When is the last time that you read a book, took a long bath, or participated in a hobby you love? If you’re constantly distracted by work or other stressors when you try to engage in these activities—or worse, don’t bother scheduling them at all—then you are definitely too stressed.

Remember that de-stressing is a learned skill. People often think they can simply will themselves to be less stressed. But in reality, you must learn to relax, much like other skills. This doesn’t just provide immediate relaxation, it also helps you become more resilient during future high-pressure events or periods of your life. In other words, the more you can learn better self-care techniques, the more resilient you become. When you learn to engage in yoga, meditation, or other relaxation exercises, you will reduce your stress immediately and be more resilient in the long run. The good news is that studies on the neuropsychology of stress like this one (on college students) show that meditation apps really are effective—even in 5- and 10-minute sessions.

Mental health helps total health. And vice versa. This doesn’t mean you have to be in perfect shape or maintain total diet discipline to reduce your stress. But you will find that your stress levels improve if you follow the general tenets of better health in your daily routine: proper sleep, regular exercise, and limiting your alcohol consumption. While you cannot control all of the external factors that introduce stress, you can make these kinds of personal choices a priority.

Work doesn’t have to be ... work. Many Americans find work to be inherently stressful. We spend more time on the job than many other wealthy nations—in part because we have zero federally mandated paid vacation days and national holidays. But just because you need money to live doesn’t mean the source of your income is destined to cause stress. Like all aspects of your life, your job will sometimes create anxiety and frustration. But there is a famous saying: "Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Many people have spent the last couple of years revisiting how they spend their days. Work should not only meet your material needs; it should fulfill your emotional ones. Whether that means a more radical overhaul of your professional choices or modest adjustments to your current role, find a way to make work a place that inherently brings you joy and motivates you.

You can reduce your stress, but it takes time

Committing to be less stressed might sound like just another chore. But like going to the gym or drinking more water, ultimately the rewards are more impactful than the immediate effects. And stress reduction is more achievable—and more desirable than stress elimination. Balance is key.