The holidays should be about family, friends, and fun, but unfortunately stress can put a damper on the best of holidays. Some holiday stress is unavoidable, but extreme stress, anxiety, or depression can have a big effect on your physical health.
Stress and health are closely connected. Very minor stress, like that experienced when you see a scary movie, can make your heart pound or your palms sweat. It’s more serious stress that can have detrimental effects on your health. For example, acute stress can strike when you experience something very upsetting, like a car accident or natural disaster. In people with heart disease, acute stress can trigger a heart attack or arrhythmia.
Chronic stress lasts for an extended period, such as the stress you experience when you’ve got a difficult job or other source of constant worry – such as holiday stress. This type of stress can cause fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, or irritableness. Chronic stress can also make you more susceptible to illnesses and increase your risk for cardiovascular issues. Recovering from illnesses is also more difficult if you’re stressed. If you’ve got a pain condition, this means that when your pain flares it might be more acute and take longer to fade.
Happily, reducing your stress will also reduce the negative effects of it. In fact, scientists in one study looked at the association between positive affect, such as joy or enthusiasm, by measuring it on a five-point scale. For every one-point increase in positive affect, the researchers saw a 22% decrease in the rate of heart disease.
Reducing holiday stress is a lot like reducing any other kind of stress. You have to identify the triggers for your stress and find ways to avoid them, as well as take time for yourself to relax. Here are ten ways to reduce your holiday stress:
1. Simplify your gift-giving
Instead of spending every weekend (and every last dollar) buying heaps of fancy gifts for everyone, focus on simpler presents. For example, give practical gifts like soaps, socks, or toothbrushes, but make them a little special or goofy. Choose soaps with small toys at the center for kids, socks with fun prints for your cousin, or a superhero toothbrush for your nephew who loves movies.
You could also give presents that have a lot of sentimental value. For instance, if one of your family members likes to cook, make a family recipe box. Write out the recipes for traditional family favorites, add several blank recipe cards for new favorites, and write the recipient’s name on the recipe box with a permanent marker. If you come across a forgotten photo that you know someone will love, put it in a spare frame and tie a bow around it.
If you’ve got a big family or group of friends, consider doing a White Elephant or Secret Santa. You can also give one family gift, rather than giving one present each to your cousin, her husband, and their three kids. A board game that brings the family together might be fun, or you could fill a gift bag with a DVD, a box of microwavable popcorn, and a few candy bars for a family movie night.
If all else fails, hit the gift card rack at your supermarket. No one will be disappointed in a gift card, and picking up a gift card is a lot less stressful than wandering a mall for hours on end.
2. Cut back on traditions until you’re left with what really matters
Each family has its traditions during the holidays. Maybe your family always hangs miles of garlands and lights, or perhaps you always spend a week baking so many breads, cookies, and sweets that you run out of storage space. These traditions may have started when you had small children at home, but your family traditions should grow and evolve along with your family.
Look at everything you do for the holidays and consider what really matters. For example, does every inch of your house really have to be covered in tinsel, lights, and garlands, or is more important that you have your central Christmas tree up with all your favorite ornaments on it? Do you really need to spend a week cooking and baking nonstop? Whatever the holiday and whatever your traditions, trim back so you and your loved ones can focus on remembering past holidays and making new memories together.
3. Remind your loved ones that the holidays are for love and laughter, not for arguing
If your family tends to dissolve into arguing or nitpicking over dinner, call or email a few days before the big meal to remind everyone that you’re not getting together to rip each other apart. If you’ve got one family member who likes to start heated discussions, call him or her and ask (tactfully!) that your gift this year be a family meal with as little arguing as possible.
If the worst happens and your carefully-arranged meal turns into a shouting match, that’s okay, too. Maybe it’s an inevitable part of your family’s dynamic. Don’t stress over something that’s unavoidable.
4. Allow others to help you
Maybe it’s traditional for your family to have grand, huge meals or dozens of gifts around the holidays, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Ask others to take a job or two off your hands. Let someone else bake the pies this year. Have another family member host your holiday meal or help you put up the decorations.
This is also a great way to let kids feel involved. Give simple jobs, like writing out gift tags, mashing the potatoes, or setting the table to a child.
5. Say “no” if you’re nearing your limit
As if cooking, cleaning, shopping, gift wrapping, and decorating wasn’t enough, invitations can quickly pile up to office holiday parties, open houses, children’s programs, charity events, and more. Some of these events might be fun. They might be a big part of your holiday season, something you look forward to all year.
Just be careful not to take on too many commitments. Figure out which events are most important to you and prioritize.
6. Start early, avoid crowds, and have a plan
Getting some of your holiday shopping done throughout the year can make things a lot easier. If you see something you know your loved one will flip over, pick it up. Check around online occasionally. By the time the holiday season starts, you might even have all your shopping done.
If it’s too late to shop ahead, don’t worry. Figure out what you need and where you can get it so you can plan your time strategically. Hit the shops during the week to avoid the weekend crowd, or do your shopping online.
7. Schedule entire days for the things that usually leave you in a rushed panic
Odd jobs around the holidays, like delivering baked goods or wrapping gifts, seem to take forever when you’re pressed for time. This year, block out time specifically for all those little jobs.
Set aside a day to bake, a day to wrap gifts, and a day to deliver gifts and goodies. You can even make these a family effort. If your job for the day keeps you in the house, put on a holiday movie or some music and ask a few friends or family members to join in. This will make the job go faster and give you a chance to focus on something other than everything you need to finish.
8. Set aside some time for yourself every day
This is a big one, especially if you’re the type who has to do everything. Spend a little time each day relaxing and enjoying yourself, without thinking about your to-do list. You could read a book, take a bath, or even just take a nap. If you haven’t had time to watch TV for a while, allow yourself one program, during which you do nothing but veg out on the couch.
If a few minutes of quiet time at home don’t do the trick, buy yourself a holiday gift. Go for a massage, or get a mani/pedi.
9. Think through your back-up plans
Things will always go wrong. Cars break down, blizzards roll in overnight, flights are delayed, and turkeys burn to a crisp. Think through your holidays, and if you come up with any likely disasters-in-waiting, come up with a plan. This way, if something does go wrong, you’ll be ready for it, with as little holiday stress as possible.
Keep a plate of fudge set aside to bribe the neighbor into shoveling your driveway. Tell everyone to show up at noon for the big family meal, but try to time the main dish so it’s ready at one o’clock instead to allow for icy roads. If the turkey burns, break out a frozen lasagna and start a new family tradition.
10. If you feel yourself getting stressed, take a break
Take a step back. Ask yourself if it will really matter five years from now whether the lights were crooked or the pie crust was a bit burnt. Most of the things that cause holiday stress aren’t worth worrying yourself sick over. As long as you’re with your loved ones and there’s food on the table, you’ve got a holiday to be thankful for.
Image by Nick via Flickr