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Managing Holiday Stress

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By Lisa Jordan, LCPC, NCC

Lisa Jordan, LCPC, NCC

Overbooked lists...traffic...what tops your list of stress this holiday season? Common stressors may ebb and flow throughout the year, but the winter holiday “hustle” seems to stoke the flames in a way that is unique.

’Tis the Season…for good self care.

Make it a priority to attend to your own physiological needs. Eat a balanced diet, stay physically active and hydrated, and get adequate sleep. It sounds like common-sense, and it is–but it’s often the first thing to go when demands escalate right around the holidays. Good self care also includes attending to your emotional and mental health. Mindfulness and meditation practices, breathing exercises, activities such as yoga, relaxation training, and support groups for specific challenges around holiday times can be especially helpful.

Change what you can. Accept what you can’t.

Take an account of all your stressors. If something is changeable, make an action plan, like saying a polite “no” to things that don’t serve you well. Practicing healthy and appropriate assertiveness in relationships can put you more in control of the way your holiday season plays out this year. For example, if your budget is really tight and you’re stressing out about holiday gifts, consider alternatives to putting yourself in debt. (Can you create a gift lottery in your family or social circle, where each person picks one name instead of shopping for everyone?) If you are accustomed to using substances like alcohol and drugs to manage your negative feelings, actively explore other options that create much less risk to your health and well-being. There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that being willing to accept what “is” (not that you’re happy about it or would choose it if you had another option), can be a powerful way to feel more at peace about things that are not changeable in the present.

Develop and cultivate a support system.

Connecting with others and developing a circle of support is a proactive way to avoid the inadvertent build-up of stress that leads to anxiety and depression around the holidays. Making a choice to “lean into” something that’s uncomfortable will help you develop resilience and a greater capacity for handling and managing much more in the future. Focus on creating routines that support your own individual goals.

Re-frame your stress into something better.

Practice letting go of judgments and expectations, and notice what happens to your mood. Attitude is directly connected to your perception of events, not the events themselves. Happiness is a conscious choice, not a result of the good or bad “luck” that you experience–even in times of great stress. If you want to feel better, start naming the things for which you are grateful. The more value you find in your full range of experiences (not just the ones you label as “good”), the more you actively strengthen the neural pathways in the brain that feed positive thoughts and feelings. This can be a benefit during the holidays, and also throughout the entire year.

DEVELOPING RESILIENCE in the face of stress happens when you create healthy habits and routines long before your stress starts to feel overwhelming.

ALL STRESS IS NOT THE SAME. Most people assume that all stress is negative (“distress”)–but that’s not actually true. Positive stress (“eustress”) ramps up the body’s stress chemicals (cortisol, adrenaline) when good things happen too, like bringing home a new baby, getting promoted, or moving to a new home. So it can be confusing when the good and bad kinds of stress overlap, particularly around busy and social times like the holiday season. What’s more, the idealization of family gatherings–the pressure to have a good time–adds another layer of stress for those whose celebrations do not resemble Hollywood movies.

NOT TO WORRY–handling a manageable amount of stress is in our DNA. In fact, we actually thrive with low-level stress. Data shows that athletes and students fare much better while mildly stressed, when their adrenaline levels are up, allowing for more focus and concentration during game time and test time.

GOOD NEWS: anyone can increase their ability to handle stress, by preparing for expected stress in advance, and having a toolbox of strategies for managing distress that arises from negative events, thoughts and emotions.

About the Author...

Lisa Jordan, LCPC, NCC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Chicago Loop treating individuals and couples. She offers clients a compassionate, non-judgmental presence, creating a safe and welcoming environment. She supports her clients in developing a wider range of skills and tools to create more productive and positive experiences, allowing for greater acceptance of self and others.

Last Update: 12/16/2017

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