Managing Holiday Stress: A 4-Part Method

Dec 19, 2019

By Daisy Quaker

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or none of the above, the holidays are meant to be a time of joy and cheer. While this season may indeed be filled with joy, it can also carry its fair share of stress.

Decorating your home, traveling to see family, wrapping presents, baking holiday treats, or sipping eggnog can put you in a good mood. But as the commitments pile up, you may end up in a tailspin as you rush from one thing to another, trying to fit it all in.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of people say that their stress levels increase during the holidays. In a Healthline poll, 62% say they find the holidays at least “somewhat stressful.” And according to a 2019 survey by Suntrust Banks, more than half of Americans feel pressured to overspend during the holidays.

What gives?

“Holidays and other milestones during the year can act like lightning rods for stress,” says Katie Lear, a licensed professional counselor. “There is so much pressure on the holiday season to be the most wonderful time of the year that people sometimes have to live up to unrealistic expectations.” 

A less-than-wonderful time of year

Some common holiday stressors include pressure to be happy, high expectations, comparison to others, being overscheduled, trying to “do it all,” and financial stress related to gift-giving or travel. All of these factors can provoke a stress response.

“Oftentimes, we find ourselves around family and friends that we may have long, complicated histories with,” Lear says. “We may be in close quarters with folks that we don’t see as often outside of the holiday season. When people are already feeling a little vulnerable, being in close proximity can lead to anxiety and arguments.”

Psychologist Megan Johnson, PhD, also notes the link between family relationships and stress during the holidays. “Whether it is your family of origin, establishing new traditions in your own family, or a budding romantic partnership, there are a lot of expectations with respect to relationships this time of year,” she says.

“You might be asking yourself questions like, ‘Do I have to tell Aunt Cheryl for the third Christmas in a row that no, I am not dating anybody?’” Johnson says; “or, ‘Is it too soon in the relationship to buy him a present? “

This time of year can also bring up loneliness and sadness for those who can’t be with loved ones. And those who do spend the holidays with family or friends may find themselves face to face with problematic situations they never saw coming: “In particular, those who are attempting to establish new and healthier patterns tend to get launched into old dynamics with the feeling that they must interact with certain people because it’s tradition,” Johnson notes.

Stress isn’t all bad

There are three internal components of a stress response: your thoughts about what’s going on, your feelings, and your physical sensations. For example, in response to a friend inviting you to yet another holiday party, your reaction may be, “I don’t have time for this.” This may lead you to feel some irritability and anxiety, causing tension in your neck and shoulders. 

A little bit of a stress response is a good thing. Mild to moderate stress is essential for getting things done. Without it, there would be little motivation to stop binge-watching our favorite shows from the comfort of our couch. 

“A mild to moderate stress response can help sharpen your focus and get you motivated. But as your stress level increases, there’s a point of diminishing returns where you become overwhelmed and less productive,” says Matt Boone, a therapist and author.

Strategies to cope with holiday stressors

If you’re feeling a lot of stress during the holidays or any time of year, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and what’s really important to you. Self-care, work-life balance, making time for relationships, and other things you value can fall by the wayside as you become absorbed in stressful thoughts, says Boone.

We can’t choose when stress shows up, but we can choose our responses. Boone suggests the following four part method, based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), to help cope with holiday stress.

1. Connect to your values

“When stress shows up, your values provide a compass to guide your actions, no matter what your stressful thoughts say,” says Boone. 

Your values help you tie your actions into bigger-picture priorities like family, health, love, community, and ways to contribute to the world. Values make life meaningful.

For example, you might bake cookies for your co-workers because you value a sense of community. Or you may buy gifts for family members because you value contribution.

Boone recommends identifying specific values that describe how you want to behave on an ongoing basis. How do you want to act, even when you’re stressed? For example, could you be adventurous? Open? Fun-loving? Passionate? Focused?

Try creating value statements that describe how you want to be, even when stress is present. Your values statements might look like the following:

  • I choose to take care of my health.
  • I want to build deep and lasting relationships.
  • I wish to support my family and friends.
  • I want to be patient and compassionate with others.

2. Notice your mind

“When stress shows up in our liveswhether due to work demands, family problems, health concerns, or other worries– we tend to narrow our focus and become absorbed in thoughts about the situation and how to deal with it,” says Boone.

Thoughts may rush through your mind without any encouragement on your part. If you let them run rampant, they may cloud your judgment.

“Become aware of your stress-related thoughts and their impact on your behavior,” Boone says.  “Notice which thoughts lead you in the direction of your values, and which do not.”

Try the following exercise to bring yourself back to the present moment:

  • Take a deep breath. Observe your breathing as your breath flows in and out. What’s playing in the background? Tune in to the sounds around you.
  • Notice the sensations where your body makes contact with the surfaces around you.
  • Look around and observe the colors, shapes, and objects in your visual field. What’s on your desk? What’s on the wall or beyond the window in front of you?
  • Turn back to your breathing and notice as your breath flows in and out.

3. Hold your thoughts lightly

You can change your relationship with your thoughts by merely noticing themwithout letting them run your life.

“The goal isn’t to make your thoughts go away; it’s to get some freedom to make better choices,” says Boone, who recommends the following strategies to “hold a thought lightly so that it doesn’t take charge.”

  • Remember that thoughts are not facts. 
  • Remember that you are not your thoughts. They are simply the experiences you have. 
  • Say to yourself, “I’m having the thought…”  or “My mind is saying…” 
  • Examine the utility of the thought. Is it the right tool in this situation, or is it a hammer when you need a screwdriver? 
  • Watch your thoughts like they’re clouds in the sky or the crawl on a 24-hour news show.
  • Treat your thoughts like spam. You don’t have to click.

4. Take action

Is there one action you can take in the moment that’s in line with your values? For example, maybe your aunt does ask you for the 50th time whether you’re still single, and your first instinct is to give a snarky response. Instead of just rolling with that initial thought, take a moment and remember that you strive to be a compassionate person. You may find yourself responding in a kinder way, perhaps avoiding hurt feelings. 

Choosing your actions helps you put some distance between yourself and the stressor. It’s like telling your brain, “I hear you, I get what you’re saying, but here’s what I would like to do.”

“Remember, you are in charge of your behavior, not your stressful thoughts,” says Boone. “Pick something small and let it be the beginning of an ongoing, evolving pattern of action guided by your values.” 

It takes practice

As with all advice, managing stress may sound easier said than done, especially if the holidays have you feeling stressed or down. Remember to take a deep breath and connect with your values before choosing your next move.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daisy Quaker is a freelance digital content marketer living in Duluth, MN. She helps startups and brands tell compelling stories about how they make our world better. Her interests include health and wellness, travel, and mindful living. Find her on LinkedIn.