While popular songs claim that the holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, many Americans may feel quite the opposite. Even if you aren’t a big Thanksgiving or Christmas buff, it’s hard to go about your day-to-day life without seeing decorations and hearing about all of the exciting plans that people have with friends and family. The holiday season can be a time of great joy, but for some, it’s a source of extra stress and worry.
Rather than sitting this season out, it’s important to recognize exactly what is feeding your holiday stress and to determine ways that help you to overcome those feelings. Whether you love the holiday season or would rather hide under a rock for six weeks, let’s take a closer look at what contributes to holiday stress and some easy ways to reduce it. After all, spending time with friends and family should be the highlight of your winter, not something you dread.
You can’t talk about holiday stress without zooming out a bit and looking at the overall mood of the season. When you combine colder weather that often inhibits outdoor activity with a time change that means it’s pitch black by 5:00 PM, the extra stress of Thanksgiving and Christmas can be too much to handle. Many believe that suicide rates in America spike during the winter months, but study after study has shown that springtime is actually the time of year when these numbers increase. So, what’s contributing to all of these holiday stressors?
Experts point to one contributing factor that can occur year after year, making your holiday time a much more stressful period than it should be. Called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it’s essentially a phase of depression that hits during the fall and winter months. While SAD can occur any time of the year, it’s most prominent around the holiday season and includes feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Individuals with SAD are depressed, experience low energy, and often have trouble sleeping.
If you notice a pattern year after year where the wintertime tends to bring on depression or sadness, consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. SAD can be treated with medication, light therapy, and mind-body techniques.
Seasonal affective disorder makes the holiday season difficult for many people, but often times it’s caused by the sheer logistics during the time of year. Holiday parties, family gatherings, traveling during winter weather, and having your children home from school can all contribute to extra stress and overwhelm. A report from the American Psychological Association found that despite feelings of love and happiness during the winter months, roughly 38% of people interviewed noted a specific increase in stress during the holiday season.
While that may not seem like a big number, the reasons for their stress were all too relatable, including having a lack of time, lack of money, and feeling the pressure to give gifts and attend family gatherings. 56% of those surveyed noted that they felt the most amount of stress at work, even furthering the thought that during the holidays there can be stressful triggers everywhere you look.
Another study, this time from the 2015 holiday season, noted that spending money had a lot to do with the stress felt during this time of year, and despite many planning ahead of time for holiday expenses, the ability to manage money appropriately is a big issue. Of the individuals interviewed, 54% said they had significant stress about finances, and nearly ⅓ of participants planned to put holiday purchases on a credit card with the intent of paying it off later.
Combining the pressure to give gifts and travel to see your family, combined with money issues and hectic work life, is a losing combination for maintaining a low level of holiday stress. Many of us can relate to at least one of these triggers, but more importantly, how do we deal with them?
Maintaining Your Mental Health
You can’t truly take care of others without first caring for yourself, and this sentiment rings especially true during the holiday season. Despite all of the social engagements that you’ll be expected to take part in, your primary goal should be doing things that make you happy. When life becomes especially busy, try utilizing a planner and writing down everything that needs to get done. Then, prioritize your tasks and plan out each day, making sure that you include something for yourself among all of your other commitments.
Whether you’re about to sit in traffic for hours with small children in the car, or your Uncle Bob just started a fight at the holiday dinner table, there’s no denying that stress can creep up on you within a moment’s notice. Experts recommend deep breathing to calm your nerves and refocus on what’s truly important. Depending on how much time you have, it may be as simple as closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, or it could take the shape of a 15-minute meditation session. While you may feel too busy to take a break, you’ll actually feel more refreshed and productive when you refocus your energy.
Another common cause of holiday stress is the expectation to keep everything in order and according to plan, along with maintaining an impressive image for all family and friends involved. For some, that last thought may sound arbitrary, but the pressure of holiday get-togethers, especially with family members that you haven’t seen in a while, can be enough to create massive amounts of stress. Letting go of the “should” mentality, as well as making room for new traditions that incorporate friends and family, will go a long way toward easing your mind this holiday season.
Taking Care Of Your Body
Aside from mental pressure, the ways in which we eat and exercise also play a huge role in how we feel. If you’re not one for exercising, it might seem like the holiday season is the worst time to start, but a little movement each day helps to get your blood flowing and bump up your energy levels. You don’t have to run miles and miles on a daily basis, but small efforts can help stave off seasonal weight gain and limit the effects of SAD.
Coupling a more mindful diet with daily exercise will go a long way toward managing holiday stress, as the foods we eat can affect our emotions significantly. Stress tends to make people overeat or choose unhealthy foods, and family gatherings focused around eating may not always feature the healthiest options. It’s recommended that eating smaller meals throughout the day can help regulate your blood sugar levels, thus keeping you from entering into a hunger-filled rage. By choosing healthy foods and integrating small treats in moderation, you’re more likely to stay calm and avoid overeating.
The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can leave us so busy that we forget to eat. Hunger can strike at very inopportune times, so carry some snacks with you in case of an emergency. Experts recommend low-fat and high carbohydrate options like pretzels to help curb any cravings and get you through until mealtime.
In general, staying mindful of holiday eating will be your best bet in managing stress levels. Allowing yourself permission to indulge without guilt during certain meals will be easier if you’re following a regular exercise program, and the benefits of fueling your body regularly with nutrient dense foods will help to extend your energy levels and keep your mind at ease.
Making The Most Of The Holidays
Whether you stay close to home and have a small gathering with your closest friends, or you travel across the country to partake in a huge family affair, the holidays don’t have to equate to stress. Rather than making this season about spending money, feeling overwhelmed, and living up to unrealistic expectations, set aside some time to express gratitude toward the ones you love. And don’t forget to take care of yourself, too—it will help you create a stress-free holiday season.
Instead of letting this stressful time get the best of you, take a step back and reflect on all that you’re thankful for. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year aren’t about the gifts you purchase or the fancy meals you enjoy, but instead should celebrate the people that mean the most to you. Sure, there still may be a bit of unexpected stress during the winter months, but by following the tips above, you’ll reduce unneeded holiday stress and create memories of happiness, love, and positive spirits.
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