Help for Managing Holiday Stress

originally published in The Times Herald Record, December 15, 2010. Link to original story here.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least, that’s how the song goes, and what the advertising says, and what we’ve come to believe we should feel.

But what if it isn’t?
If you’re one of those folks who sails through this season with grace and ease, and nary a dark thought, then go ahead – skip this column. But for most of us, the season has its ups and downs.  And for those struggling in this difficult economy, it may be more stressful than ever before.

In times of stress, it’s essential to have an an array of resources for support.  I hope at least a few of these will resonate with you.

Get Enough Sleep Sleep is a health essential, and that is true for psychological health as well as physical health.  When we’re tired, we are more easily overwhelmed; our nerves fray, and we tend to make poor choices. You will cope much better with the stresses of the season if you are well-rested.

Stick to Routine During the holidays, routine often goes out the window.  Don’t let it. Eat 3 meals a day, get some exercise, and get your sleep.  (And if these aren’t your routine already, now is a great time to start.)

Minimize Alcohol It’s easy to drink too much this time of year, but contrary to popular belief, you can celebrate without drinking at all.  Decide ahead of time what is best for you, and then stick to it. You can fill those festive glasses with water, seltzer or juice, and no one even has to know. Or be a hero, and volunteer as designated driver.

Express Your Gratitude Focus on what’s good in your life, both small and large. It’s simple but effective. You’ll feel even better if you let others know: tell someone you appreciate what they said or did, whether it’s your best friend, a colleague, a sales attendant or a family member.  Let people know they make a difference in your day, and in your life.  You’ll boost their spirits and yours as well.

Hit “Reset” A few long slow deep breaths calms your nervous system, and takes you out of acute stress physiology. Why not do a reset on your holiday dynamic, too?  Maybe you can take a different perspective this year, and surprise the usual crowd with your unusual aplomb.  Keep the big perspective. If all else fails, you can usually end an impending argument with a smiling “Let’s agree to disagree”.

Pick Your Battles. Family is the last frontier.  As much progress as you think you’ve made in life, your family can have you feeling like a helpless 4 year old in no time.  If the dynamics aggravate you every single time, be better prepared this year.  Think ahead about how to cope, and how to support yourself.

Say No Know your limits, keep your boundaries. If an invitation or request truly doesn’t work for you, whether because of time, money, values, or energy, it’s okay to say no. You don’t need to explain or defend your choice. Some version of “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to do that” is sufficient. Repeat if necessary. Don’t get angry, and don’t waver.

Ask for Help When you’re overwhelmed it’s easy to retreat into your turtle shell. Asking for help can be scary, because it makes us feel vulnerable.  Yet talking to someone who helps you to feel safe while encouraging you to express your feelings can be a life-saver. If there isn’t someone in your personal life who fits the bill, find someone professional.  There are many kinds of help available, short term and long, to fit all needs and all budgets, from pastoral counseling to therapists to holistic counselors like myself.

Additional Tips

Strike A Pose
Yoga’s reputation for inducing calm is well deserved. Some yoga studios offer free or donation classes.  Or do something as simple as putting your legs up the wall for a few minutes, with a rolled towel under your neck, and one for your lower back. Extra soothing after you’ve been on your feet in the kitchen or the mall all day.

Never underestimate the power of music to change your mood, lift your spirits, and nourish your soul. You just have to find what works for you – and it may not be holiday tunes. For me, it could be anything from Bach to Frank Sinatra to Shakira.  Explore sites like Pandora that help you find new music you like based on a song or artist you choose.

Don’t Multitask
When you have too much on your plate, it’s tempting to try to handle everything at once.  But science shows that the ability to stay focused on one thing at a time is correlated with happiness. Minimize the frazzle by writing a list, prioritizing, and working through it one item at a time. Be realistic about what is do-able each day, and flexible when life changes your plans, as it inevitably will.

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