It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…and for most people, that means they’re starting to feel stressed. In fact, a Healthline survey in 2015 found that 62% of people find the holidays “somewhat or very stressful.” The holidays should be a time for celebrating, relaxing, and making memories with the people we love. But underneath all the festive fun, there are lots of reasons to feel stressed as the holidays get closer and closer.
What causes holiday stress?
According to that Healthline survey, by far the most significant cause of holiday stress is money. In fact, nearly half of the people surveyed said that finances were the leading cause of their holiday stress. Other common causes included:
- The pressure to find the perfect gift
- Staying healthy over the holidays
- Family conflict
- Being away from family
- Cooking and hosting
It can seem like all of these external factors are out of our control around the holidays. The idea that you have to spend heaps of money, overeat food, and go to too many Christmas parties can leave us feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
But in reality, we don’t have to do anything just because that’s what is expected around the holidays. And even if we do want to stay busy, we can control our response to stressful events, so that they feel less stressful and more manageable. Hans Selye, known as the “father of stress research,” puts it like this: “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
What is stress?
Before we dig into how to deal with holiday stress, it’s essential to understand what stress actually is. The simplest definition of stress is “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.” It’s a natural part of our lives and has lots of positive benefits – like keeping us safe from danger and helping us perform our best in essential situations.
But in messy modern life, stress gets a lot more complicated. While some stress is good, high levels of stress with no relaxation in between can become chronic stress. And that’s not good for us. Chronic stress can affect our physical and mental health, our cognitive abilities, and our emotions.
There are lots of external factors that cause stress, like significant changes in our lives, being overworked, and conflict with other people. Unfortunately, we can’t always control those factors. But the good news is, there are also lots of internal factors that influence how stressed we feel. And we can adapt our internal response so that we feel less stressed, and better able to cope with the challenges of the holidays.
With that in mind, here are five great ways to fight holiday stress and focus on the positives of the festive season.
1. Start with gratitude
The first step to a low-stress holiday season is approaching the festivities with the right attitude. Before things get hectic, take some time to set your intentions for the holidays. Reflect on what really matters to you and what you’re grateful for. Practicing gratitude has been shown to make people happier. It helps us focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t. That’s especially important if you’re feeling like you can’t meet all the demands of the holidays, or if you’re overwhelmed by the materialistic parts of the season.
You can simply take some time to reflect on what you’re grateful for. Or you could go one step further and make time every week to write down a handful of things you felt thankful for that week. You could even write a thank you note to a person who made your life a little better. This practice of gratitude will help you enter the holidays in the right mindset and stay focused on the things that really matter.
2. Share the load
There’s no denying there are lots to do around the holidays. Buying gifts, writing cards, decorating the house, food shopping, parties, and finding time to give back – it’s a lot. But you don’t have to let those demands get on top of you.
First of all – prioritize. Which things matter most, and which ones could you let go? At first, it might seem impossible to say no to anything around Christmas. But after you’ve done it once, it’s not as hard as it appeared. You can start small – turn down one invitation to a party because you’re too busy. Or agree to do a gift exchange with your friends rather than buy gifts for everyone. Not only does prioritizing reduce stress, but it also means you’ll spend less money – one of the biggest causes of holiday stress.
Secondly, share the load. The holidays are a time for family, sharing, and community. You shouldn’t be expected to take on the burden of all the festivities yourself. Speak to your partner, children, parents, and extended family about how you can share out the workload. Maybe you host a potluck dinner instead of cooking everything yourself. Or your partner decorates the Christmas tree while you write the cards. You’ll lower your stress levels and feel closer to the people in your life.
3. Look after your body
Stress can have all sorts of unwelcome effects on our physical and mental health. It can affect our sleep patterns, how much we eat, and how well we can focus on tasks. It can elevate our heart rate, cause chest pain, headaches, and make us more likely to fall ill. Stress can also make us more irritable, anxious, and pessimistic. We might find we drink more, smoke more, and over-eat to try to deal with stress.
All of this means it’s especially important to stay healthy at stressful times. Sadly though, the holidays aren’t exactly associated with healthy habits for most people! With an over-abundance of food, endless opportunities to over-indulge, and the gloomy weather keeping us cooped up inside, it can be hard to feel healthy at Christmas.
That means you’ll need to plan some healthy routines into the holidays consciously. For example, you could buy in healthy, vitamin-rich food for the days surrounding Christmas, so that over-eating on turkey doesn’t have too much of a negative impact. You could limit the amount of alcohol you have in the house, so you aren’t tempted for an extra tipple when things get crazy. Or you could make plans to exercise with a friend twice a week during the holidays, rain or shine, and get a stress-reducing endorphin boost. And finally – don’t forget to get 8 hours of sleep every night.
4. Practice mindfulness
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
As we said, it’s possible to control our response to stressful events, even if we can’t control the events themselves. And the ancient practice of mindfulness is an effective way to do this. Mindfulness is defined as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” It can seem like a strange idea in our frantic world.
But research shows that mindfulness leaves people feeling happier, less stressed, and less likely to dwell on negative or stressful thoughts. To find some moments of mindfulness amid the festivities, try these simple tasks:
- Pay attention to your breathing. If you’re feeling stressed, take 10 deep breaths – in for four, out for four. You’ll feel your heart rate slow and your mind stop racing a little: enough to help you focus on the task at hand
- Notice things in your environment. Pay attention to the smell of the Christmas tree, the lights sparkling on the snow, or the sound of your children’s voices. Focusing on what you’re sensing takes your mind off stressful or unhelpful thoughts
- Allow thoughts to come and go in your mind without judgment. Don’t cling to them or obsess over them – simply let them pass through. This can take practice, but it’s an effective strategy for feeling less stressed and overwhelmed
5. Connect with the people that matter
At their core, the holidays are about the people around us. Sure, we might feel stressed about sending cards, buying gifts, and cooking dinner for so many people. But we also value the chance to spend time with the people we love and be present for them. Focusing on this connection with friends and families around the holidays is key to tackling the stress of the season.
Amid all the demands of Christmas, take time to connect with the essential people in your life. You could team up with your sister to cook dinner together or write cards with your kids. If you’ve said no to some social events, use the extra time to catch up with a close friend – rather than doing additional shopping or cleaning! Switch off your phone and be present for a real conversation. You’ll feel less stressed and revitalized by the time you spend together. Once you’re focused on the people that matter, the other stressors of the holidays will seem less important.
The Holidays Don’t Have to be Stressful
Although you might start December with a feeling of dread and stress, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of things you can do to lower stress levels and reconnect with the real purpose of the holidays: sharing experiences with the people you love. And remember – the holidays don’t last forever. However, stressful December might be, when January 1 rolls around, you’ll have space to relax, regroup, and rejuvenate yourself.