4 ways to overcome holiday stress
How are you feeling about the upcoming Christmas holidays? Are you looking forward to the next few weeks of festivities? Or are you secretly dreading what should be a cherished time? Maybe, like many of us, you’re somewhere in the middle—excited but a little worried, too. If you’re worried about finding the perfect gifts for everyone, making memorable meals, entertaining relatives, and maintaining your sanity throughout the process, you’re not alone.
So often, the joys of the season are tempered by concerns over everything from gift giving to meal planning to wondering how the relatives will find a way to start an argument this year. Fortunately, over the years I’ve gathered ideas on how to maintain good health, subdue stress, and avoid conflict in these situations. So, in the spirit of giving, here are four things you can do to put the “ho ho ho!” back in your holidays.
1) Practice Better Coping Techniques
There’s no way to measure, but I think it’s safe to say that a good deal of the weight people pack on during the holidays is from stress-related eating and drinking. Feelings of discomfort from being around strangers or certain family members can trigger poor food or beverage choices, especially when it comes to comfort foods like sweets and fats or alcohol.
If you’re a stress eater or drinker, I suggest tackling the situation head-on. For example, acknowledge that your brother-in-law makes you grit your teeth, but resist the urge to reach for a glass of wine or another cupcake whenever he’s around. Instead, tell yourself you’re not going to let him or another situation spoil your day or lead you astray from your healthy holiday plan. Then pour yourself a glass of mineral-rich sparkling water and add some lemon, or make a cup of relaxing decaffeinated green tea to underscore your commitment to yourself and your health. And please read on for additional suggestions on how to stop stress.
2) Learn How to De-Stress
As I’ve said many times, chronic stress is not your friend. But if a taxi comes barreling around the corner just as you’re stepping off the curb, stress is a good thing. Your heart rate increases and stress hormones, like norepinephrine and cortisol, pump through your body, giving you the physical boost you need to get out the taxi’s way.
But when the stress response is caused by a social situation and continues day after day, it takes a toll and makes you vulnerable to everything from heart disease to cancer to weakened immunity and digestive disorders. Just remember, how you react to a situation is the key. Here are a few ways to stop the stress cascade before it stops you:
- Breathe deeply. Get in the habit of practicing deep breathing in stressful situations.
- Smile. The simple act of smiling or laughing releases substances in the body that counteract your stress hormones.
- Treat the stress as temporary. Tell yourself you can get through this and that it will be over soon. Knowing there’s an end in sight makes many situations tolerable.
- Use aromatherapy. Carry a tissue scented with a few drops of lavender essential oil. When you feel stressed, pull out the tissue, dab at your nose to inhale the lavender, and feel your stress disappear.
- Walk away. If the conversation is going in a direction that signals trouble, simply excuse yourself for a short time. Go into another room, breathe deeply, and close your eyes. Envision a relaxing, happy situation for a minute or two.
3) Accept Imperfection
Please don’t set the bar so high (for yourself and everyone around you) that failure becomes the only option. We all want to be good hosts, hostesses, or guests. But let’s be real—stuff happens. Some days, no matter how hard you try, the gravy is going to be lumpy, the traffic will make you late, or the gifts won’t arrive in time. And guess what—life will go on! Stressing over every little detail during the next few weeks is not going to change one thing except your health, and not for the better. Remember to breathe, smile, and envision a happier or more relaxing situation—and remember, it will all be over soon.
4) Take Care of Yourself
As enjoyable as the holidays can be, they can also be intense, and that can take a toll on your health. Stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to everything from common colds and flu to more serious ailments, including cancer. Here’s a brief overview of how you can protect your immune system:
- Eat for immunity. That means avoiding sugar and fat whenever possible and passing on the processed foods. Fill your plate with nutritious whole foods, including lean protein and lots of vegetables, fruit, and grains. Yes, it can be a challenge but one that pays off in the long run.
- Sleep it off. Deep sleep allows your body to replenish its stock of immune-supportive substances. If you’re serious about staying well and silencing stress, make sleep a priority. One to three milligrams of melatonin half an hour before bed time can help you fall asleep more easily.
- Move more. Stress reduction is just one of the many benefits of exercise. Aim for 30 minutes or more of daily exercise to relieve stress and encourage deeper, more restful sleep.
- Make humor part of your day. Whether it’s a favorite sitcom on television or a book or website that always makes you laugh, embrace the humorous things in life, especially during stressful times. Research shows that humor helps minimize the worst aspects of stress by boosting immunity, increasing pain tolerance, and minimizing the negative elements of the stress response. Learn to laugh at mistakes—especially your own—and you’ll enjoy every day much more.
- Limit your gift-giving worries. Instead of agonizing over finding the right gift for everyone, here’s a trick I learned a few years ago, when gift giving was becoming overwhelming. Buy the same thing for similar groups of people. For example, the same plush animal in a different color for each child takes the guesswork out of finding toys for little ones. And why not give the grown-ups on your list copies of a book or DVDs of a movie you enjoyed this past year? Or give family and friends prepaid phone cards so they can keep in touch throughout the year.
- Stay on your supplement schedule. If you’re going to be away from home, buy a pill-minder (a divided box that lets you store pills on a day-by-day basis) so you can take your supplements with you. You may even want to add some stress-fighting substances to your daily regimen, such as l-theanine (50 to 200 mg), magnesium (250 to 500 mg), valerian (50 mg of a concentrated extract), and GABA (100 mg).
- Take advantage of short cuts. Use gift bags instead of wrapping paper, online shopping and delivery services, and make-ahead meals that allow you to prepare dishes ahead of time. And please don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself. It’s okay to delegate now and throughout the year.
A great deal of the pressure we feel during the holidays is of our own making. Leave perfection to the professionals who have a staff of people behind the scenes dealing with details, and focus on enjoying yourself. Then when the holidays are over, you’ll have happy memories that will last much longer than the fluffiest homemade piecrust or smoothest gravy.
Last Updated: December 10, 2019
Originally Published: December 10, 2012