Tips to Relieve Holiday Stress

Many of us approach the winter holidays with such high expectations that our spirits – which are supposed to be buoyant – quickly become saddled with stress and disappointment. We cling to idealized visions: families uniting in friction-free camaraderie; children behaving like angels; everyone loving the “perfect” gifts we selected; friends gazing with amazement at the culinary masterpiece before them on the dinner table.


“These perfect images are fostered by the media and popular culture, or by our limited perceptions as reality,” said Thomas Stanger (Counseling and Consultation Services). “Everyone else appears to be happy, when in fact we are unlikely to see into others’ private space where they may be feeling sad. Trying to live up to the promise of the holidays not only saps our energy and resources – the gap between the ideal and the real may lead to holiday blues rather than holiday cheer.”


Stanger said a combination of factors can increase our vulnerability at this time of year:


Holiday activities on top of normal responsibilities (work and family) can lead to a major time crunch and related anxiety.


•Gift-giving and other costs associated with the holidays increase debt and can put a significant burden on households that may already be financially strapped.

•The family dynamic is commonly not the ideal picture to fit holiday activities; realities such as death, separation, divorce and remarriage and family discord do not go on holiday just because we do. Most individuals do not live within a so-called traditional family, which might conflict with traditional holiday-related values.


•The holiday season coincides with a period of relatively little daylight, which in and of itself tends to dampen moods. Shorter days also contribute to decreased physical and other pleasurable activities, disrupt sleeping and eating patterns, change normal social activities and other stress-reducing outlets—all of which can affect a person’s mood negatively. These factors can be exacerbated during the holidays when coupled with an unspoken expectation that one should be in “good spirits.”


To reduce stress, Stanger offers the following tips:


•Be realistic. Don’t expect family rifts to magically mend themselves over the holidays and don’t put up a false front that everything is rosy when in fact it is not.


•Set reasonable spending limits. Consider less expensive, homemade gifts instead. Let children know if some items are simply too expensive and make it clear that they should not expect to receive every wish on their list.


•Manage your time effectively. Shop during non-peak hours and be selective in terms of which invitations to accept or which activities to partake in.


•Schedule in some time for activities that you find to be genuinely fun.


•Limit your goals/resolutions. Trying to implement too much change too quickly can lead to frustration and disappointment.


•Learn to discern what you can affect and what you can’t. Stress that you can use to take action turns into energy; stress that can’t lead to action turns into worry that drains energy. If you can’t use it, learn to lose it.


•Be kind to yourself as well as others—each one tends to make the other better.


•Tune out the hype and reflect on the real spirit of the holidays.


If you are unable to cope with holiday-induced stress or the “blues,” Stanger said that making the decision to see a counselor can often be the best first step to getting out of a rut and feeling better about yourself quickly.




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Updated: April 23, 2004