Ah, it’s about that time of year again. You know: the precipice of the holiday season—when the air feels fresher, and kindness and giving take precedence, and nostalgia kicks in, and… Oh, yeah, right. It’s also the time when that evil stress monster takes over your body as you prepare for all of the cooking, cleaning, and awkward family interactions that dominate the six-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. (Why does someone always have to bring up politics at the dinner table?!)
Yes, you might love your family members dearly. You might love spending time with them, too. But holiday stress is a very real thing—quadruply so, if you’re traveling. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t tamp down or even entirely banish it.
So, if you’d like to retain your sense of sanity throughout the November-to-January stretch, read on: we reached out to top psychologists to learn their best advice for dealing with holiday stress. What results is an incredibly helpful guide for getting through year’s end with your mental health intact. We are sorry to report, however, that none involve devouring that plate of cookies meant for Santa. C’mon—you know better.
Manage your expectations.
While the holiday season can be an incredibly joyful experience for most, many of you likely spend more time reeling from the stress of cooking, cleaning, and purchasing gifts to fully appreciate the time spent with family. So, in order for you to put aside your lofty expectations of the holiday season and spend more energy reconnecting with family, licensed clinical psychologist Kimberly Dwyer, Ph.D., suggests setting more realistic expectations for the season. “If you work to set expectations to a realistic level focusing on what you can control, you may have success in reducing stress. For example, rather than an expectation for a perfect holiday, perhaps a realistic expectation would be to find moments of calm and connection with family members during the holiday season,” she said.
Find ways to keep the kids busy.
While, yes, you may love them, adding kids into the mix of the holiday season can just further compound the stress that you are likely to experience. But, according to marriage and family therapist Diana Bigham, M.A., there is a way to ensure that everyone remains at peace during stressful holiday outings. “Pack busy bags for children using small toys for convenience that you can buy at a party supply store. This will give them screen-free entertainment on the road. They’re inexpensive, travel-friendly, and create novelty to engage your child’s interest,” she says.
Take a break from the family catch-up.
Though you should try your best to make the most of this special time spent with your extended family and friends, it’s perfectly reasonable to allow yourself some alone time, too, says Bigham. “Maybe you grab a coffee or make a run to a local store. That quick break for fresh air will often be just what you need to reset your mental and emotional self and provide perspective,” she says. While, yes, the holidays are a very social time of the year, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be a social butterfly 100 percent of the time. Your social skills need a rest sometimes, too.
Avoid conversational landmines.
As a rule of thumb, keep conversation light by avoiding talking points like politics, family drama, and other controversial subjects that will only create arguments, says Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. “Any political conversation gets heated pretty fast. Best not to take sides and get into the fray,” she says. And if you do find yourself in the middle of a heated debate, it’s best to channel your inner Switzerland and refuse to take any sides in the conflict.
Mind your manners.
Especially if you’re meeting your partner’s family for the first time, good manners should be a top priority at any holiday gathering. More than anything else, according to Hartwell-Walker, your future in-laws will notice how many times you uttered “please” and “thank you.” Taking the time to be polite is a simple, stress-free approach to these new interactions.
Cut your family some slack.
In general, your family doesn’t intentionally try to get on your nerves—you’ve just spent years expecting and focusing in on those few things they do that annoy you, therefore, constantly amplifying them. But, as Hartwell-Walker points out, they’re still family, so staying positive and attempting to work past their annoying habits will strengthen your relationship and ease the tension during the holiday season.
Be willing to help, and to receive help from others.
There’s a reason why the holiday season is the busiest time of year—we spend most of this time cooking, cleaning, and shopping in preparation for holiday parties. So, if it ever feels like there’s just way too much on your plate, it’s perfectly fine to set aside your pride and ask for help, says Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services CEO Kita S. Curry, Ph.D. “Use your supports. The holidays are a good time to reach out and lean on family, friends, clergy, teachers, or others who care about you,” she said. On the flip side, it can also feel good to help others during the holiday season—like doing small chores and errands for those people that you care about.
Avoid creating packed schedules.
Where the holidays do present challenging deadlines, it’s best to keep your schedule light, as cramming in as many activities and errands as you can into your calendar will only add to your stress levels. Instead, work to strategically space out your gift-buying, food shopping, and miscellaneous holiday adventures so that you’ll have plenty of time to stop and admire the beauty of the holidays.
Learn to say “no.”
In fact, the key to avoiding unnecessary stressors is possessing the will to simply say the word “no.” And, while you may feel a greater sense of obligation to your family members during the holiday season, you still need to keep your sanity in mind. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. It’s that simple.
Forget about achieving perfection.
No matter how hard you work to get all of your holiday season ducks in a row, it’s inevitable that something will go wrong or amiss—so don’t sweat the small stuff. To avoid stress this holiday season, leave your ideas of perfection behind.
Learn to go with the flow.
Similarly, learning to go with the flow and taking everything in stride can help avoid feeling out of control. Though remaining easygoing can be difficult, it not only takes the stress off of you, but also that of other family members and friends who may not appreciate your desire to control the situation. Again, perfection is not attainable—so just breathe and allow events to unfold naturally.
Relish in family rituals.
No matter what the ritual may be, sharing this special moment with family members each year can provide an easy way to bond, and can even work to minimize the heightened stress you feel during this time of year. And, according to Nick Hobson, Director of Science at PsychologyCompass.com, it can possess even deeper effects. “Rituals are powerful stress-busters. They serve as a buffer to counteract different sources of anxiety,” he says. So, whether these rituals are rooted in culture, religion, or are family-created, they can serve as an important distraction for your mental health.
In order to stay above the negativity that may creep into your mind during the holidays, challenge yourself to remain optimistic no matter what circumstances are thrown your way, says Dr. Noelle Nelson, a psychologist and author of The Power of Appreciation. “Change your focus during holiday gatherings. You’re not there to dwell on the negatives or to pick fights. You’re there to enjoy what you can with the people you’re with,” she said.
Set boundaries with toxic family members.
For those family members that seem to drain all of the positivity from every room, there’s a simple way to shut them down before their words can threaten your zen. According to Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a clinical professional counselor and creator of the Marriage Restoration Project, articulating your feelings in a non-confrontational way can help shut these negative family members down without hurting their feelings. “Let your parents or other family members know early on that you appreciate their input and that you and your spouse are both adults and will decide what you want for your family,” he said.
Stay on the same page with your spouse.
To better deal with the stress the holidays may bring, recruit your significant other to help navigate the tense waters surrounding the season. “Have an open dialogue with each other about your fears and expectations for potential holiday encounters. This will give you the opportunity to discuss strategies to deal with potential conflict,” said Rabbi Slatkin. Not only will this open dialogue help ease the tension during holiday get-togethers, but it also has the power to strengthen your relationship in the long-run.
Don’t work too hard to impress the in-laws.
If you find that the stress of impressing your in-laws is causing you to lash out at others, then it might benefit you to take a step back and assess why you’re feeling so insecure about this time spent with your spouse’s parents, says Rabbi Slatkin. “If you find yourself getting stressed out and screaming at your spouse or your kids every time your in-laws come over, no one is going to have fun during the visit, so what is the point? Your calm and happy home will impress your in-laws much more than your spotless house or Martha Stewart entertaining,” he said. In short: your level of zen creates a much more enriching environment for the in-laws—and for your mental health.
Take care of your body.
Keeping your body in check can also do wonders for the mind. Reaching for foods that are chock-full of healthy fats and omega-3s (like nuts, avocados, and salmon) naturally work to boost your mind. Further, according to Dr. Bryan Bruno, Medical Director at Mid City TMS, packing a few light-weight workout accessories can be a great way to work out while traveling for the holidays. “Working out is a great form of stress relief, so even if you only have 10 minutes in your hotel room to fit in a workout, it can help clear your mind! Pack the right equipment to get the best burn, like resistance bands, a Pilates ring, or jump rope,” he said.
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