40 Genius Ways to Stay Sane in December
How to actually enjoy the most wonderful time of the year
You don’t need us to tell you that Christmas isn’t always a jolly affair. Given all the gift-giving demands, home décor prep, crazy end-of-year work deadlines, cooking obligations, endless awkward holiday parties, and all of those dreaded run-ins with literally every single member of your family, the holiday season can easily cause even the most emotionally health and intelligent person to start cracking.
But fear not! We’re here to help. What follows is the most comprehensive list you can possibly find of ways to survive the holidays—and all of the stresses that come with it—without suffering anything resembling a panic attack. So read on, and have a Happy Holiday. (Seriously!)
Focus on the Present
You can fight those feelings of being overwhelmed, says licensed clinical psychologist Nicole Issa, Psy.D., by shifting your focus back on the here and now.
“Count holiday decorations in a store, like the number of Santas you see while you’re shopping,” says Issa. “If you’re at a holiday party or meal, focus on the taste of food. Count how many times you are chewing each bite.” Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that it allows you to “tune into your environment” and diverts your attention away from those worries.
Make Time For Everything
“Choose where the time for decorating, shopping, etc. is going to come from rather than thinking you can do it all, getting frustrated when you can’t, and having things unintentionally get missed or be of poor quality,” says Dr. Eddie O’Connor, PhD, CMPC, a representative for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “If you add something, choose what you will subtract that day.”
We all have those relatives who can’t help but voice their opinions about your life choices. Don’t let their comments fester angrily in your mind. “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,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC, a certified Imago therapist at the Marriage Restoration Project. “If you can articulate your feelings in a safe manner with love and respect, your family members will most likely understand.” More importantly: You’ll feel much less stress.
Give Strangers a “Secret Gift”
Giving people a “secret gift” is easy, rewarding, and doesn’t cost a penny. So how does it work?
First, pick out a stranger in your immediate surroundings. Now that this stranger is on your mind, take a few seconds to wish this person good health and good fortune.
“Secretly giving people these gifts will elevate your mood and help you make it through the next few months,” explains certified hypnotist Charles Buckingham.
Pay Attention to the Big Picture
“Stress arises in the holiday season when one tends to tiny details and loses focus of the big picture,” explains Joy Rains, a mindfulness trainer and author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage Your Busy Mind.
Instead of worrying about the small things that hardly even matter, make an effort to expand your focus and spin the situation into something positive. For instance, when you’re at the grocery store getting ingredients for a holiday dinner and the aisles are overwhelmingly crowded, “see if you can connect with a sense of community with all the other people there,” says Rains. “After all, you are all there to buy your holiday ingredients so you can cook your holiday meals.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Say No
Sure, you might get invited to four or five parties all taking place within the span of a week, but that doesn’t mean you have to actually go to all of them. Rather, “the holidays will be much more fun and less stressful if you only do what you are capable of,” says Alissa Schneider, MA, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in alleviating anxiety.
Ultimately, Schneider suggests listening to your feelings. If you find yourself overwhelmed at the mere thought of attending a party, then it’s probably time to start turning invites down for your sanity’s sake.
Take a Six-Minute Reading Break
You don’t have to read the entirety of Infinite Jest to reap the anxiety-alleviating benefits that novels have to offer. According to one study from Seton Hall University, reading for just 30 minutes can reduce stress levels significantly, and it’s a more effective stress reliever than drinking tea or even listening to calming music.
Recognize What You Can’t Control
“You can’t control the airlines, the weather, or your aunt Edna—but you can control how you respond to these situations,” says Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, a licensed therapist and board-certified coach. Before you grit your teeth through your entire airport experience and set a sour mood for the rest of your trip, Brigham recommends “setting an intention” for the holiday season—something that “will help you get clear on how you want to show up and be as a person.”
Be Honest about Your Anxiety
If you want to stay sane during the holidays, one of the best things you can do in the name of your wellbeing is to open up about how you’re feeling. “If your stress is not dealt with, it can lead to ‘acting out’ behavior, like drinking too much or creating relationship, work, or money problems as a distraction,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today. “Allow yourself some time to complain and be unhappy. Express as many of the negative feelings and thoughts as possible, either verbally or on paper.”
Use A SEAL-Approved Breathing Technique
“Find a spot at the event where you can get a minute alone. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your spine straight, and roll your shoulders back. Relax your neck and situate your head so it rests straight on your spine. Then, inhale for a slow count of four. Hold your breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Do this exact breath three more times.”
Though this entire exercise won’t take you more than a minute, Trakhtenberg notes that “the difference will feel like a miracle.”
Stick to a Budget
Naturally, one of the biggest stressors during the month of December is money. If and when you find that your finances are starting to cause you stress, Schneider recommends making a budget for the holiday season and strictly abiding by it. “This is a perfect area where you can practice setting a boundary and sticking to it,” the counselor says.
Eliminate Your Expectations
If you keep your holiday expectations low (or even nonexistent), you might just find that it’s almost impossible to feel disappointed. “Often we are too busy trying to recreate something special that we can’t be present and enjoy whatever is actually happening,” says Kelly Houseman, MS, LLPC, a mental health counselor and owner of Kelly Houseman Counseling. “Count your blessings without expecting them.”
Make Time For Exercise
“Physical activity is essential to managing anxiety and stress,” says Issa. And don’t just take her word for it: One meta-analysis published in JAMA found that when patients with chronic conditions exercised regularly, they experienced a 20 percent reduction in stress-related symptoms compared to those who didn’t break a sweat.
And Exercise with Friends
Working out solo is a great way to stay sane during the holiday season, but if you want to take your sanity-saving efforts one step further, then recruit some friends to take classes at the gym with you. According to one study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, people who worked out in a group were able to lower their stress levels by 26 percent compared to those who chose to sweat solo.
Take Advantage of Travel Delays
Why should you let something as out of your control as travel delays ruin your fun festivities? Should your flight or train get postponed a few hours, you can use all that newfound free time to check some things off of your to-do list instead of waiting angrily for transportation to arrive. Not only will this help to pass the time, you’ll feel much less stressed once your train or plane does arrive knowing that your to-do list is just a little bit shorter.
Don’t Skimp on Sleep
You might be tempted to stay up all night crossing things off of your to-do list, but cutting back on sleep is the last thing you want to do if you want to stay sane during the holidays. In one recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers found that losing sleep both increases feelings of anger and makes it harder to calm down in frustrating situations.
Space Out Your Holiday Obligations
“Break up holiday to-do lists by planning ahead so you don’t get overwhelmed,” says Hal Pickett, Psy.D., LP, ABPP, chief learning officer at Headway Emotional Health Services. Sure, you might have countless things to get done before December 25, but if you start planning ahead now, you should be able to get everything checked off your list without having to do it all at once.
Increase Your Tolerance For Stressful Situations
Before your anxiety becomes too much for you to handle, take a few minutes each day to work on increasing your tolerance for negative emotions. According to Issa, some activities that will improve your tolerance include “taking a couple minutes at night to count your breath, petting your dog and focusing on the softness of its fur, or taking extra time on your daily walk.”
Warm Up with a Cup of Tea
Even if you’re not a frequent tea drinker, you might want to consider adding the hot drink into your rotation during the wildly stressful winter months. Why? In one study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, researchers found that subjects who drank four cups of tea per day saw a 48 percent decrease in stress hormone cortisol after completing a stressful task, whereas subjects who drank a placebo only saw a 27 percent drop.
Skip the Festivities Altogether
If the holiday season is just too much for you to handle, then don’t feel obligated to go through the motions just because everyone else is. “You’re not running away from your problems if you go on a vacation or choose to spend the holidays in an entirely different way than what you think is expected of you,” says Houseman.
Come Up with a Game Plan
“A lot of times stress is caused not by a particular situation in and of itself, but because of a perceived lack of control,” explains Stephen Glicksman, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva University. “One way of preempting stress is to try to gain more control over potentially stressful situations.” If you’re making a trip to the mall, for instance, Glicksman suggests creating a list and figuring out which stores to hit up before you ever even step foot inside the shopping center. And if you want, you can even make a plan to reward yourself for getting through your list—after all, nothing keeps a person calm and composed quite like a celebratory ice cream cone.
Learn to Recognize Your Body’s Stress Signals
Since anxiety tends to manifest both mentally and physically, it’s important that you’re able to recognize when you’re undergoing stress. “When you tune into your body and notice what sensations are coming up, you learn to recognize stress as it starts to build up and are more able to stop it in its tracks,” explains clinical psychologist Eran Katz, MA.
Eat Cookies and Celery
“Cold months and holidays make us want to load up on comfort foods, but healthy eating is important for both emotional and mental health,” says Pickett. “Balance the influx of cookies, pies, and eggnog with winter vegetables and lots of water.”
Practice L.I.L.O. Breathing
L.I.L.O. breathing—short for “less in, less often”—is breathing specialist Tara A. Clancy’s go-to method for overcoming overbreathing and keeping calm. So, how does it work? Start by taking in a regular breath through your nose and exhaling the same way. Wait a few seconds, and then repeat the breath once again, continuing to do so until your serenity is restored.
“L.I.L.O. breathing restores the body’s balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and gets you in the moment as you focus on your breathing,” explains Clancy. “This combination is a surefire way to stop stress in its tracks.”
Leave Nothing to the Last Minute
There’s so much to get done during the holiday season, and “saving it all for the last minute will only raise your stress,” explains Prakash Masand, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence. Since you already know that the holidays are going to involve a lot of preparation and planning, start getting ready for the festivities weeks—if not months—in advance and avoid any potential procrastination-related meltdowns.
Register For a Yoga Class
Whether your anxiety is seasonal or sticks around come springtime, yoga is a great practice to take up for reducing stress and staying sane during the colder months. In fact, when Iranian researchers had 52 women partake in just 12 yoga sessions, they found that depression, anxiety, and stress levels all decreased significantly.
Take a Coloring Break
Nowadays, coloring isn’t just for children. Not only do adults find the activity fun, but research has shown that it helps to alleviate anxiety—and the more intricate the coloring book pattern, the better the stress-reducing benefits.
Steer Clear of Emotional Eating
“Many of us tend to eat to handle emotional chaos, but this only adds pounds and makes you feel even worse,” explains Dr. Alok Trivedi, a human behavior and psychological performance expert and founder of the Aligned Performance Institute. “If something is bothering you, address it—no matter how insignificant it may seem.”
Pop In a Piece of Chewing Gum
Bring a pack of gum with you on every holiday shopping trip you take this year. Why? According to one Australian study presented at the 10th International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, people who chew gum are able to reduce their anxiety by 17 percent during mildly stressful situation compared to those with nothing in their mouths.
Jot Down Some Positive Thoughts
Focusing all of your energy on your positive emotions rather than your negative ones might just be enough to help you combat your winter blues. That’s according to one study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, which concluded that writing about your positive emotions for just 20 minutes per day can mitigate the negative emotional effects of stress and anxiety.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help
During the holiday season, far too many people feel like they have to handle every last detail themselves, from gift-giving to decorating. “Don’t feel like you have to be the hero of the holiday season,” says Masand. “Ask each person to bring a dish to dinner; make decorating a family activity where the kids help out, or consider a grab bag gift exchange where each person buys only one gift to alleviate the stress of having to get something for everyone.”
Limit Your Social Media Usage
Though social media is a great place for sharing family photos and getting holiday recipes, spending too much time on online platforms can potentially cause you to start comparing yourself and your holiday celebrations to those of your friends. If you measure your self-worth and the success of your holiday festivities according to how it all looks on social media, you’re pretty much setting yourself up to feel like a failure.
Set 30 Minutes Aside for “Worry Time”
Rather than wasting your entire day freaking out about every little inconvenience, clinical psychologist Sari Chait, Ph.D. recommends setting aside 30 minutes every day specifically for stressing out. “When people commit to this, they often find that they are better able to manage their worrying at other times of day, especially if they remind themselves when they feel anxious that they will worry later,” says Chait.
Make an Effort to Communicate
If you’re upset with someone or you feel like a friend or family member is harboring resentment for some reason, make an effort to communicate with that person and clear the air. “It’s people’s inability to communicate and tendency to make assumptions that gets them into trouble,” says Trivedi.
Partake in a Meditation Session
One hour of meditation. That’s all it takes to reduce anxiety levels for the foreseeable future, according to research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting. Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of sitting still for long periods of time, setting aside just one hour every week for a little bit of mindfulness is extremely doable—and the ends definitely justify the means.
Manipulate Your Muscles
Here’s a stress-relieving tip, courtesy of Milana Perepyolkina, author of Gypsy Energy Secrets: When you start to feel stressed, make a conscious effort to tense your muscles on purpose, as if you’re trying to lift 100 pounds. After a few seconds, relax your muscles “as if you are a soft stuffed animal.”
“It is not possible to have relaxed muscles and think stressful thoughts at the same time,” says Perepyolkina, and so purposefully focusing on relaxing your muscles will help to soothe your mind, body, and soul.
Get a Massage
Anyone who’s ever gotten a massage already knows that it’s one of the most relaxing activities out there. In fact, research from Umea University in Sweden recently found that massages activate an area in the brain linked to feelings of ecstasy and enjoyment and successfully reduce anxiety levels for those who splurge on the spa service.
Spritz Some Soothing Lavender
Keep some lavender candles lit while you get the house ready for holiday visitors. Per one meta-analysis published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the scent of lavender is just as effective in overcoming anxiety as 0.5 mg per day of anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam.
Don’t Forget to Smile
Fight the urge to frown when something is getting you down. When psychologists from the University of Kansas analyzed the relationship between stress and smiling, they found that subjects who were instructed to smile had lower heart rates—and therefore less anxiety—following stress-inducing activities.
Seek Professional Help
Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional should your holiday stress start to spiral out of control. There’s no shame in seeking the assistance of a certified professional if you feel like your negative emotions are overwhelming what should be a happy time of year. At the end of the day, your mental and physical health will benefit.
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