By Alix Jansma, LMHC
The holiday season is in full swing! It’s time for traditions, cookies, cozy fires, gift giving, holiday parties, decorating, planning meals, visiting friends, seeing family…hmm that’s a lot. It’s no wonder the holidays can be stressful with so much to do in such a short amount of time. While holiday festivities can be joyous, they can also be distressing for a myriad of reasons. In this post, we’ll go over some common holiday stressors and some tips for managing holiday stress.
What makes the holidays so stressful?
Across cultures, there are near-infinite ways to celebrate the holidays, and therefore many pathways towards stress. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some areas in which you may feel the stress of the holidays.
Ahh family. Can’t live with ‘em or without ‘em. And when I say family, I’m not just talking about your bloodline. I mean any and all humans you choose (or feel obligated) to spend the holidays with. Spending time with friends and family can be a great way to socialize, which is great for our mental health. However, there is something about the holidays that can add an extra layer of stress. Maybe it’s the sheer abundance of time we are exerting ourselves and depleting our social battery. Or maybe it’s the conversations that can arise – politics, money, religion. Navigating differences in opinions and values with those you care about and are trying to have a pleasant time with can be extremely difficult, to say the least. For some of us, there might be very challenging even traumatic memories associated with family that can come up around the holidays.
Gifts, meals, and activities have worked their way into our culture when it comes to celebrating the holidays. These things can cost some serious cash. And with social media and TV ads bombarding us and our children with the latest and greatest technology and other doodads it’s easy to feel pressured to spend beyond our means in an effort to make our celebrations especially special. It’s extremely common for those needing to stick to a tight budget to feel guilt and shame over not being able to have the “perfect” holiday, replete with a huge dinner spread and a mountain of gifts.
For some people, food is a wonderful part of the holiday season. But for many others, food can be a stressful topic. For one thing, food and mood are inextricably linked. What we put into our bodies can have a profound impact on how we feel, and the truth is a lot of the American-style holiday dishes aren’t the best for our emotional state. Additionally, for those trying to practice a healthy diet, watch their blood sugar, or manage weight, the heavy meals and desserts set in front of them can present different issues – cravings, urges, feelings of guilt, and pressure from others to eat more.
How to manage holiday stress
So, what do we do about all of the above? The good news is that while there is a near-infinite number of stressors introduced by the holidays, there are also a near-infinite number of ways to cope! The tips below are not a magic wand. They won’t bibbity-bobbity-boop all the holiday stress away. However, the goal is for the stress to be more manageable. So, let’s get into it!
Because the holidays come with a lot of pressure to be merry, they can also come with a lot of guilt when we’re not feeling so holly jolly. We might start to have thoughts like, “Why can’t I just be happy?” “I’m supposed to be enjoying this.” “I’ll disappoint people if I’m not in a good mood.” These thoughts, natural though they may be, are not helpful. They only add to the pressure we are already feeling. I encourage you to turn towards self-compassion. Remind yourself that the familial, financial, and food-related stress you might be feeling is 100% completely normal, common, and valid. When you notice negative thoughts coming to mind, try to notice them, thinking to yourself, “I notice I’m having the thought that I should be happy.” And then try saying to yourself, “This is a really stressful time for me and many other people; I’m doing my best.”
The TIPP skill is incredibly useful for in-the-moment distress. These skills are quick, easily accessible, and effective for managing holiday stress. “T” stands for temperature. This skill, in its traditional form, involves putting your face into a bowl of ice water and holding your breath for about 30 seconds. It induces something called the human dive reflex, which all mammals have and is designed to take you out of fight or flight and into rest and digest. In fact, all of the TIPP skills are designed to do just that, which is why they’re great in a moment of panic or overwhelm. If you don’t have a bowl of ice water, you can substitute with an ice pack or cold wash cloth.
“I” stands for intense exercise. The goal is to get your heart rate up to 70% of its max (google what your max is). All you need is at least 1-2 minutes of brisk, aerobic exercise to feel the effects. So, try a quick walk, some jumping jacks, or running in place. If you have a health history the requires exercise to be tailored for your condition, please check in with your Kinwell care team before proceeding.
“P” is for paced breathing. Deep, slow breathing into your diaphragm trips the vagus nerve which in turn gets you out of fight or flight. Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for 7, and let it out through your mouth for 8.
The last “P” stands for progressive muscle relaxation. This skill involves tensing and releases various groups of muscles and bringing full attention to the sensation of relaxation after releasing the tension. Pair it with deep in and out breaths, breathing in on the tension and out on the release. Try this guided PMR.
Another skill I to managing holiday stress is to cope ahead. We’ve all seen this tree before, so to speak – we know the people, places, and situations that tend to get our goat during the holidays. So, it’s worth your time and energy to plan ahead for these triggers and stressors. First, make a list of what could potentially stress you out this holiday season. Be as specific as possible – how will you know when you’re starting to get overwhelmed? Then, come up with a plan to cope with the stressor if and when it happens: What will you say? How will you excuse yourself? What skills will you use? Where can you build in time for yourself? It might even be worth coming up with an exit strategy if the event or situation becomes too overwhelming to stick with. Once you have your cope ahead plan in place, rehearse it in your mind – imagine yourself coping with the stressor effectively. That way, when it’s time to put it into practice, you’ll be ready.
There’s no doubt the holidays can be a stressful time for many of us. We hope these tips help you manage holiday stress just a little bit better this year. From everyone at Kinwell, happy holidays!
USPS Operation Santa – USPS runs a program called Operation Santa where children can write letters to Santa (to a sneaky USPS secret address) and volunteers read these letters and choose children that they want to send Christmas gifts to. Letters must be postmarked by December 11th.
Forgotten Children’s Fund – The Forgotten Children’s Fund serves several counties (King, Pierce, Lewis, Chelan, North Sound, etc.) in Washington State where they provide a variety of gifts to children and families who do not qualify for assistance from other charitable organizations.
Toys for Tots – Toys for Tots collects and gives out toys, books and stocking stuffers to children in need. This year, toys will be distributed only to non-profit organizations and individuals will need to reach out to approved organizations to request a toy.
Feeding America – Looking for free food in your community? You can easily find a food bank near you by entering your zip code or state. We will provide you with a list of Feeding America partner food banks and their contact information.