The radio croons, “It’s the hap-happiest season of all,” lights twinkle, people keep wishing you a “merry this” and a “happy that.” Many welcome the holiday season with open arms. For others, though, this “happiest season of all” can feel nightmarish. One need not be a total Grinch to still feel some stressors during the holidays. Perhaps you’ve always loved the festivities, but this year bore down hard on your finances. You’re suddenly worried that your gift haul won’t live up to last year, and fear disappointing loved ones. Perhaps you just went through a breakup and are dreading the inevitable Q&A session with your nosy uncle. And for those in recovery from any sort of substance or food addiction, the holiday season is something of a trigger fest.
In other words, whether you love, hate, or feel some conflict toward the holiday season, it’s easy to fall prey to the myriad of stressors.
Statistics tell a similar story. According to one study, 64 percent of people say their stress levels increase exponentially during the holiday season. The holidays can feel overwhelming on the body and mind; at a time when more self-care is needed, your schedule may not allow.
And yet this is exactly why the holidays are actually an opportunity to fine tune and improve your self-care practices.
Based on experience with clients and, of course, reflection on my personal experiences during the holidays, I’ve come up with a few ways to keep it real this year. The holiday season doesn’t have to be something you dread or come out of feeling rattled and uncentered. I hope they’re a reminder that self-care doesn’t always have to be too complicated, and from the difficulties presented by the season, we’re given an opportunity to grow even more.
Read on for my best ways to manage stress, whether it’s related to finances and gift giving, complicated family dynamics, travel woes, and/or time management during the holiday season.
1. Get a good laugh in.
Yes, the holidays can be stressful and triggering, but what if we tried not to take it all too seriously? Which is why you should make some sanctioned time for laughter. Laughter is scientifically proven to help you process stress and leave you feeling more relaxed. You’ll get an immediate endorphin release, in addition to some stellar long-term benefits such as greater immunity (hello, flu season!) and overall mood. So pick out a good comedy movie, check out the local improv show you’ve been putting off seeing, or simply surround yourself with good friends who make you laugh.
2. Identify your triggers.
The holidays are a great time to break out that journal. Try to become more aware of your stressors by taking time to reflect on them. If you’re more aware of what stresses you out in the first place, you can pause and take action before the triggers take over. For example, if you know your mom is going to make a snarky comment about your cooking, have some options in your toolkit for how to handle it. This doesn’t mean triggers won’t affect you, but you’ll be better equipped to handle them. Just as a football player puts on their padding before the game, you can reflect on what you’ll need to prepare for and feel ready for it. Even this feeling of readiness will leave you more empowered and less susceptible to being triggered in the first place.
3. Shake it out, aka MOVE.
Oftentimes the anticipation of stress is worse than the stress itself. If you’re already worried about the holidays, chances are you’ve created patterns of stress in your nervous system, making your more reactive and tense. Forget about waiting until January to hit the gym—get moving now! Take a walk, go dancing, hit the gym, get to your favorite yoga class. Exercise helps relieve tension in the body, which in turn helps your overall stress response. Whatever you do, just get physical and allow that stress to release in your mind and body.
I think we see this tactic mentioned often, but that’s because your breath is a veritable superpower, especially against stress. Breath allows you to pause and respond, rather than react. Download a free meditation app, set a timer, or simply allow yourself to focus on your breath. Practice this so that when you’re stressed in real time, you’re able to take a deep breath, re-center, and respond. When you take this breath, it slows down time, sends you into a parasympathetic state, and creates a space between the annoying event and your reaction. Here is where you can make a choice, and the choice becomes a response. Instead of cursing the guy out who cuts you off in the grocery store for that last turkey, you may simply choose to breathe and laugh at the situation.
5. Plan a “you day.”
Have a plan in place for solo time during this social, or lonely, season. If you’re feeling lonely, really take the time to pamper yourself. If you’re overwhelmed with social engagements, do the same thing! Perhaps your “you day” is filled with the gym, a massage, spa treatments, or even just Netflix and healthy foods. Whatever it is, put it on the calendar and make it a non-negotiable date just as you would with someone else you care about. Rest assured that you have something to look forward to, just for you!