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Therapists Reveal Surefire Ways to Strip Away Stress This Holiday Season

The next few months don't have to feel overwhelming and exhausting, experts say.

Many of us look forward to the holiday season all year long. Regardless of what you celebrate or if you celebrate at all, this time of year is defined by giving and kindness. But along with these positive feelings, for some, the holiday season can also be stressful. Spending money on gifts, preparing for celebrations, and getting together with family can all be pressure points.

"Most people, even the ones who start decking out their houses the moment they turn off the light for trick-or-treaters, find holidays inherently stressful. And, for those who suffer from anxiety or depression, these feelings can be exacerbated," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield, tells Best Life. She also notes that this time of year also comes with "unrealistic expectations" that create "compounding pressure."

Clinical psychiatrist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear, points to the fact that holidays can elicit different kinds of stress for different people, whether that be from financial issues, family pressure, or loneliness.

If you find that the holidays get you worked up or tend to trigger negative memories, read on. We've asked therapists to outline some strategies for combatting tension over the next few months. Read on to find out how you can strip away stress this holiday season.

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Adjust your gifting.

excited girl opening gifts for kwanzaa
SeventyFour / Shutterstock

Probably the most stress-inducing component of the holidays is gift-giving. Not only do you have to pick out a present for everyone on your list, you also have to pay for them. That's why some therapists recommend switching up the way you shop this year.

"If gift lists (and the bills they create) leave you feeling depressed or anxious, you're not alone," Manly says. "Shopping malls, driving, and holiday chaos also increase stress levels! By downsizing a focus on material items and increasing the focus on family and friends, a natural boost in mood results. It's a win-win when you have lower bills and more time with those you love."

Similarly, you can also set a strict budget for yourself that you'll stick to, or even gift experiences.

"Take a nephew to ice cream. Take your mom on a morning walk in a park. Bake a friend some muffins. Give gifts with intention," Carrie Rose, divorce coach and founder of SunUp Coaching LLC, tells Best Life.

Say "no" when you need to.

holiday party invitation
Ganzyk / Shutterstock

Because of the sense of togetherness that the holidays foster, it's sometimes challenging to maintain your personal boundaries. According to therapists, however, saying "no" when you need to still applies at this time of year.

"If saying 'yes' too frequently creates a sense of depression, anxiety, or stress, learn to say 'no,'" Manly suggests. "It's good self-care to know when to decline requests and invitations in a polite, yet firm manner. If you are always the 'doer,' the spot you leave open might be gobbled up by someone who might not have otherwise stepped forward. Especially during the holidays, it is important to remember that more is not necessarily better! By learning to keep healthy limits, your stress levels will plummet."

Ribarsky also says you can opt out of experiences that don't serve you.

"Don't feel like going to your sister-in-law's white elephant party? There's power in saying 'no,'" she explains. "You don't even have to make an excuse—just a simple, 'Thank you for thinking of me and including me, but I can't make it.'"

RELATED: 9 Affirmations to Always Stay Positive.

Choose your battles.

man and woman at holiday dinner party
Spaskov / Shutterstock

The holidays can also be a time when family and friends reunite—some of whom might not share the same thoughts or beliefs. To keep your own stress at a minimum, remember that not everything has to be a fight.

"I'm not saying you shouldn't stand your ground and let your opinion be heard, but sometimes there are better places and times to have the discussion you really want/need to," Ribarsky explains.

Limit alcohol and caffeine intake.

enjoying drinks at christmas party
Piyada Jaiaree / Shutterstock

This one is particularly tricky, as many holiday events involve alcoholic beverages and you may be seeing a lot of early mornings. But according to Abbey Sangmeister, therapist, professional and parental burnout coach, and founder of Evolving Whole, keeping tabs on these habits can keep you more "grounded" during this hectic time.

"You may be rushing around and working longer hours to prepare for the season but having more coffee or other caffeine can increase anxiety and stress," she tells Best Life.

Regarding holiday spirits, Sangmeister says, "Alcohol might be a way some celebrate, but when it isn't limited, it can be the downfall of a successful and joyous holiday season. Using alcohol to cope with stress, work, family dynamics, and burnout is a surefire way to crash this holiday season. The more alcohol, the more stress."

RELATED: 10 Ways to Feel Calm and Happy (That Aren't Meditation)

Eat a balanced diet and stay active.

Close-up of couple passing latkes during a meal at dining table while celebrating Hanukkah
Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

Similarly, you want to make sure you're taking care of your body by eating right and moving. According to therapists, you should be doing this throughout the holiday season—not waiting until the new year.

"Maintain a balanced diet and regular exercise routine," Courtney Hubscher, licensed mental health counselor, LCPC, NCC, of GroundWork Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, tells Best Life. "It's easy to overindulge during the holidays, but keeping up with healthy habits can significantly reduce stress levels and regrets."

Manly also points to research that found sugar and processed foods can actually contribute to stress and recommends drinking water and having a healthy snack before parties.

Manly continues, "It's natural to want to indulge during the holidays, but limiting your intake of sweets and processed foods will go a long way to keeping you in good shape emotionally and physically. When possible, load up your holiday plate with extra fresh veggies, fresh fruit, and a handful of nuts!"

Don't ignore loneliness.

woman feeling lonely at christmas
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

For many, the holidays are a time that can feel lonely or isolated, especially if family or friends aren't nearby. This is just one factor that could contribute to stress, making it all the more important to address.

"If you're feeling lonely during the holidays, reach out for support. Call a family member, reach out to a friend, or invite your buddies over to play games," Manly says. "With many people facing the holidays alone, it's important to reach out to connect with others—chances are that someone you know is feeling lonely, too."

And if you find that you're struggling with grief or loss, don't feel like you have to be overly celebratory.

"If you're struggling with grief, missing family members who have passed, or relationships that have ended, don't force yourself to do something you don't want to do. Don't feel like celebrating? That's okay! But, make it clear to family and friends how they might best support you during this time," Ribarsky says. "The first Christmas after my mom passed, my stepdad and I surrounded ourselves with household projects to keep our hands and minds occupied and forwent our traditional holiday meal because it just didn't feel right."

RELATED: 11 Calorie-Burning Activities That Don't Feel Like Exercise.

Pare down your to-do list.

Close up on person writing in journal

Another common component of the holidays is a never-ending to-do list. This in and of itself is stressful, which is why you should keep your checklist to only the must-have items.

"If your list of events and tasks is bringing you down, analyze your list objectively," Manly suggests. "Determine what gifts, tasks, and shopping items you can readily remove. When trying to please everyone, stress increases as lists become unwieldy and burdensome. Try to let go of the unnecessary items that you feel you should do, and try to retain those that you want to do."

Embrace imperfection.

family at holiday dinner – Yuri A / Shutterstock

Across the board, therapists noted the importance of recognizing that not everything is going to be perfect.

"You can reduce stress by letting go of the idea of the perfect holiday," Manly says. "The pressure to socialize, perform, and have a perfect holiday is taxing. So, lower your expectations and focus on what really makes you feel relaxed—and then do more of it without feeling the need to be perfect."

Hubscher also highlights the importance of recognizing your holiday season might not go exactly to plan all the time. In turn, this allows you to "focus on creating meaningful memories rather than trying to meet unrealistic expectations," she says.

RELATED: 8 Affirmations to Feel Ridiculously Happy Every Day in Retirement.

Be intentional.

man woman and little girl lighting candles for Hanukkah
Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Another important tactic to combat stress during the holidays is being intentional. Lizzie Reiss, reiki master, healer, and founder of Magic is Real Healing, notes that you can "set a tone-based intention for the day" first thing in the morning.

"A tone-based intention is not a goal you want to accomplish, but rather a simple acknowledgment or declaration of the tone, emotion, or approach you want to be the theme of your day," she explains. "This intention can be applied to any situation."

You can also be intentional with your values, which will help you figure out the best course of action for yourself during the holidays.

"If you're consistently living outside your values, it's tiring, inauthentic, and not sustainable," Rose says. "If you value community, you'll want to be intentional to spend the holidays with other people. If you value faith, you may want to embrace a religious or spiritual service or practice around the holidays. If you value adventure, you may want to plan an outdoor excursion. In general, embracing your values is a natural way to minimize stress."

Set aside time for yourself, whatever that may look like.

woman doing yoga in front of christmas tree
DMITRII SIMAKOV / Shutterstock

When it comes to reducing stress, it's also vital to take care of yourself, whether that be through exercise, listening to your favorite playlists, or meditating.

Janice Holland, licensed professional counselor, trauma coach, and founder of The Courageous Woman, recommends treating yourself to some "me" time via a spa day, whether you book a swanky appointment or pamper yourself at home.

"Look at your calendar and intentionally plan some spa time, especially after events you find really stressful (we're looking at you, office holiday party)," Holland says. "If you can book some time at a hotel spa, great! If that isn't in the budget, then go to your local drugstore and pick your favorite scented soap, grab a face mask, and delight in a new nail polish color. Create your own spa day alone or with friends, whatever brings you the most joy."

She adds, "You'll be amazed at how taking a couple of hours for yourself at key points during the season will keep your energy up and cortisol down."

RELATED: 7 Surprisingly Easy Things That Will Make You Feel Happier, According to Science.


family celebrating kwanzaa
Image Source Trading Ltd / Shutterstock

Another way to slash stress during the holidays is time to laugh and enjoy yourself. When we're stressed, laughter and joy often fall by the wayside—but they're two pillars of the season!

"The benefits of laughter are well-documented in the field of neurobiology, but you don't need research to tell you that laughing feels terrific," Manly says. "Laughter relaxes tense muscles and even lowers blood pressure. When we laugh, endogenous opioids are released in the body, and feelings of calm and pleasure naturally result! The stress-relief benefits of laughter are all the more important during the holidays!"

Manly recommends watching a comedy or bringing out a board game that you and your family enjoy, while Holland recommends starting a group chat with friends or watching a funny YouTube or Instagram account known to make you chuckle.

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Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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