6 Simple Ways to Slash Holiday Stress

By Liz Wallace |

Your guide to keeping calm and carrying on when chaos is all around you.

older woman in the snow

Fact #1: We want the holidays to be perfect—a time filled with friends, family, and festivities.

Fact #2: The holidays are never perfect—our friends, family, and festivities can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.

“All the obligations, the pressures people put on themselves to get the right food and the house perfect, the shopping—these all contribute to holiday stress,” says Rosalind S. Dorlen, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Summit, New Jersey.

The cherry on top: complicated family dynamics.

The stress comes “not from the holidays themselves but our expectation of what they should be,” Dorlen says. During the heart of the holiday season, use these tips to cope.

1. Check Your Expectations

“Understand what you can and cannot control,” Dorlen says, “and try not to expect perfection.”

If you’re gathering with family members who hold different political views, she says, “don’t expect a miracle” to occur over dinner.

Instead, shift your attitude toward gratitude. This list of four compelling reasons to embrace family time can help.

2. Make Self-Care Your Priority

Taking care of your body will extend to your mental self and sense of well-being. This doesn’t necessarily mean pampering yourself with massages, Dorlen says, but also getting enough sleep, eating nourishing foods, and moving your body.

“Thirty minutes of walking a day changes your mood,” she says. In fact, any type and any amount of exercise can help.

Try any of these ideas:

3. Don’t Bottle Up Your Feelings

Choose your vehicle, from paper journal to smartphone, and jot down your thoughts.

“Holidays are bittersweet for so many,” Dorlen says. “People have memories of wonderful holidays and not-so-wonderful holidays. Acknowledging those feelings, putting them in writing, and maybe sharing them with a friend or family member can be helpful in understanding their complexity.”

If you can, talk to a friend face-to-face. Research from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who saw friends or loved ones at least once or twice a week were much less likely to be depressed than those who only had those sorts of interactions once or twice a month.

Missing a loved one that you’ve lost? Try these tips to cope with grief.

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4. Take a Deep Breath

Deep breathing is a surprisingly simple yet powerful stress reliever. Harvard researchers found that practicing controlled breathing can help the body slow down its heartbeat, limit the production of stress hormones, and trigger the relaxation response. The best part: You can do it anywhere, anytime—even in the middle of a holiday gathering.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious, take a few minutes to sit quietly and inhale, allowing your belly to rise before your chest. When your lungs feel naturally full, take in even more air. Hold briefly, then exhale. When you feel your lungs are empty, push out even more air to a count of 10 until you have made your lungs as empty as possible. Repeat at least two more times.

Or try the Lion’s Breath exercise, recommends SilverSneakers instructor Terecita “Ti” Blair. It’s silly—but it works!

5. Know Your Limits

Multiple trips to the eggnog bowl is fun in the moment, but it can lead to saying something you regret or feeling blue the next day.

Beyond that, heavy drinking is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure. When researchers from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons crunched the numbers from 16 previous studies, they found that men who drank two to three standard drinks per day were 77 percent more likely to have hypertension than those who abstained. And women who drank the same amount were 19 percent more likely to have hypertension than those who didn’t drink at all.

The takeaway: For heart health and managing holiday stress, stick to no more than one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men.

6. Do Something for Someone Else

Being kind rewards the human brain with a release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin. Volunteering, either at a local organization like a holiday soup kitchen or by offering to grocery shop for a neighbor in need, is “not just good for those you’re helping—it feels good and can be very transformative,” Dorlen says.

Other options: Surprise your spouse with a cup of coffee in the morning, hold the door for the person behind you, or find a book a friend might enjoy. Any small action counts—and comes with big mood-boosting rewards.

Want more ideas? Click here to see seven random acts of kindness you can commit anytime.

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