The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful. Here’s how to overcome that.
- Posted on Dec 16, 2019
From the decorations to the gift-giving to the family get-togethers in between, we strive to make the holiday season as magical as possible. It’s no wonder then that the stress of planning an idyllic Christmas leaves many feeling overwhelmed and overworked. According to a Healthline survey, over 60% of people report elevated stress levels during the holidays.
Guideposts.org spoke with Dr. Vaile Wright, Director of Research and Special Projects at the American Psychological Association. Dr. Wright regularly interacts with patients battling stress and anxiety, especially during the holidays. Here are her best tips for avoiding the hassle of the Christmas season and focusing on what truly matters.
The easiest way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to recognize the one thing you have complete control over: your expectations. That doesn’t mean preparing for the worst so much as tempering your ideas of perfection.
Dr. Wright says expecting everything to go off without a hitch is a guaranteed way to ensure anxiety and disappointment.
“I think for most people the holidays [are] a pleasant time but we often have some pretty unrealistic expectations,” she told Guideposts.org. “[There’s] this need to have the perfect decorations, the perfect gifts, the perfect meal, to hit all the parties, to have the best time, and for everybody to get along. There's disappointment when all those things don't come true, and then there's this anticipatory anxiety about this strive to meet those unrealistic expectations.”
One way to fight the need for perfection is to dial back time spent on social media during the holidays.
“People who spend a lot of time on social media often report higher levels of stress,” Dr. Wright confirmed. “Social media is a place where people put on their best face. It is not the place that people [show] the poorly wrapped gift or the meal that didn't go the way you wanted it to. Social media plays a role in setting these unrealistic expectations and those who are prone to feeling stress about that probably should monitor their social media time and maybe take a break.”
Speaking of breaks, it’s important to schedule a few in your holiday calendar. Of course, this also means you need to listen to what your body is telling you.
“I think it's really important that people pay attention to how they're feeling physically,” Dr. Wright said. “A lot of our stress manifests itself in physical ways—stomach aches or muscle tension or headaches. If you catch yourself feeling these physical signs of stress, you need to pay attention to your body take a break.”
That doesn’t mean you need to check out completely, but it does mean you need to schedule some one-on-one time with yourself and spend it doing something that brings you peace and happiness.
“That could look like taking a walk or doing some sort of diaphragmatic breathing,” Dr. Wright said. “It could be distracting yourself by watching a movie. Whatever the case might be, take the breaks as you need to manage your stress.”
While many people are blessed with big families to spend the holidays with, some might be prepping for smaller affairs. Perhaps you don’t have many distant relations visiting this year or you recently lost a loved one and are worried about getting through this Christmas without them. All of these feelings are perfectly okay.
“You want to really be kind to yourself,” Dr. Wright advised. “I think people have a tendency to judge themselves either for being alone or for feeling sad or for grieving during what's supposed to be this happy time of the year. It's okay to just feel how you're feeling.”
If you do find yourself a bit down or lonely this holiday season, Dr. Wright suggests focusing on making Christmas joyful for yourself by spending time doing things that bring you happiness.
“For those who maybe don't have a lot of family or are feeling alone, we often encourage them to create traditions for yourself,” she said. “You can still celebrate this time of year and do things that you find enriching. And we often encourage people to go out. Go to the movies or do things where even if you're not with a specific person, you're still out with people.”
The busyness of this time of year can throw personal routines off the rails. Making sure you hit every celebration and attend all the festivities can sometimes mean the rest of your carefully planned life becomes chaotic. But for your own peace of mind, it’s important to continue, as best you can, with the routine you’ve enjoyed all year long.
“Just like the rest of the year, it's okay to indulge a little bit in moderation but don't drop the other important habits that you have,” Dr. Wright said. “That's why it's important to have those habits all year long, like getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, not isolating and being socially connected to others.”
A routine will help you stay healthy and organized, but it will also go a long way to mitigating the stress of the season.
Perhaps the best way to manage feeling overwhelmed during the holidays is to check in with yourself. We’re often so worried about pleasing others during this time of year that we put our own needs on the backburner, building up that stress until it boils over and ruins our celebrations. It’s healthy to ask yourself how you’re doing during the season and to adjust your plans according to your answer.
“If we don't take care of ourselves, then we can't take care of others,” Dr. Wright said. “We can't make sure that others are having a good time if we're always neglecting our own needs.”
Keeping a check on things can also help lessen post-holiday depression. Once the relatives leave and the gifts are open, the joy of the season seems to disappear. Dr. Wright explained the key to avoiding this is to zero in on what you love about the holidays and place less importance on everything else.
“If you don't overindulge in the holidays, there isn't nearly that big of a crash afterward,” she said. “If you can approach the holidays, not as this excuse to go crazy, but instead, a celebratory time where you get back to what matters to you. If commercialism and these unrealistic expectations aren't important to you, what is? Is it reflecting on the year? Is it volunteering? Is it coming back to your spirituality? I think if we can focus on what is it about the holidays that's most important to us, then that enables us to not get caught into these traps of big highs and then big lows.”