Happier Holidays

Six Tips for Managing the Stresses of the Season

Many of us look forward to the holiday season as a time to be together with our families, to see loved ones we haven’t seen in a while, and to enjoy great food and joyful festivities. However, along with those happy perks of the holiday season often come stress, anxiety and depression. And this year, those issues are amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brings concerns about our health and the health of loved ones and may change what our holidays look like in 2020.

Stress can lead to headaches, body aches, irritability and an inability to sleep, which can subsequently lead to a host of other mental and physical health issues. But, the good thing about holiday stress is it’s rather predictable, coming along at the same time every year and presenting in expected ways. With a little forethought, we can make an action plan to reduce holiday stress and the negative impact it has on us. Here are six tips for keeping your holidays – and yourself – merry and bright.

Reach Out

If you’ve been practicing social distancing, you likely feel more isolated than normal, and those feelings of isolation may be worsened over the holidays. But, you are certainly not alone with those feelings, so don’t be afraid to reach out. Community and religious groups, libraries and yoga studios, restaurants and museums are all offering ways to connect online. Check in with family and friends over the phone or organize virtual happy hours or game nights. If you like to cook or bake, drop off meals or treats for loved ones, or consider volunteering with a local charity to foster a sense of connection. If your sense of restlessness persists, seek the help of a mental health professional.

Be Realistic

Let go of the idea that the holidays have to be “perfect,” or that they have to be the same as last year. Keep the traditions that you can, but know that if you skip a year, those traditions can always be brought back. And, you can also start new ones. Remember, your family members are who they are, and expecting them to be otherwise is unrealistic and can only lead to frustration. They, too, may be experiencing stress and anxiety. Try to embrace all the different opinions and life experiences your family and friends may, quite literally, bring to the table. Rather than focusing on your differences, try to focus on the things you all have in common, like a shared love for family, or for Aunt Linda’s pecan pie.

Stick to a Budget

It is easy to let your finances get away from you during the holiday season, so before you do your food and gift shopping, determine how much you can afford to spend and make a concerted effort to stick to that budget. Don’t forget to include small items like wrapping paper and shipping costs, as they can add up. Paying in cash or with a debit card makes it less likely that you’ll overspend, but if you must have those credit card points, mind your statements and pay in full so looming debt doesn’t add to holiday stress. Remember, it is the sentiment behind gifts that really counts. If you can’t afford to buy something for everyone in your life, bake them a treat, or give them an I.O.U. for a night of babysitting or a shoveling of their driveway.

Plan Ahead

It’s very easy to be overcome with stress when you leave everything for the last minute, so set aside specific days for food and gift shopping, cooking and baking, writing holiday cards, gatherings with family and friends and other activities. It may sound silly, but making a shopping list, a gift list and a to-do list for other holiday tasks, then physically crossing items off the list as you complete them, provides a profound sense of accomplishment. It also helps you prioritize what is most important and makes it less likely that you’ll forget something.

Say No

During a normal holiday season, many of us feel compelled to accept every invitation, leaving little time for ourselves and us feeling frazzled rather than content in the joys of the season. In this year’s alternate holiday universe, no one will blame you for wanting to stay home, so don’t feel pressured to attend events that will make you uncomfortable. The same rules apply to virtual gatherings that will cause you stress, anxiety or disappointment. So, if skipping your online high school reunion in favor of a quiet Zoom happy hour with your cousins makes you happy, do it. And the more you say “no,” the easier it will become. You will be grateful you’re more free to really enjoy the events that are important to you.

Maintain Healthy Habits

The holiday season always leads to overindulgence. Everyone loves to enjoy an extra glass of wine, an extra trip to the cheese plate, or an extra cookie, but inevitably, we allow ourselves too many treats, which leads to higher levels of stress and guilt. Of course, enjoy yourself, but also try to continue your regular exercise routine through the holiday season, as a way of both relieving stress and burning extra calories. Consider having a healthy snack before big holiday meals, because confronting a huge spread on an empty stomach is sure to lead to going overboard. And remember to make time for sleep. The extra tasks of the season can lead us to stay up late and get up early, but you’ll be more productive, better able to cope with the stresses of the holidays and more able to enjoy yourself if you approach each day on proper rest.