Handling Holiday Stress - Putting Your Mental Health First

In the movies, the hol­i­day sea­son is filled with pic­ture-per­fect snow­falls, beau­ti­ful home­made din­ners, and fam­i­lies that couldn’t be hap­pi­er to see each other. 

In real­i­ty, the hol­i­days don’t always go per­fect­ly. Some­one might get sick, the snow may turn to slush, or your chil­dren may cry because some­one opened some­one else’s present. With errands to run, presents to buy, and meals to make — you’re not alone if the hol­i­day sea­son stress­es you out. 

While stress is a nor­mal part of life, it doesn’t have to ruin your hol­i­day. Whether you’re in charge of bak­ing grandma’s famous casse­role or orga­niz­ing your com­pa­ny par­ty, you can find calm in the snow­storm and low­er your stress levels.

Here are 3 strate­gies that can pri­or­i­tize your men­tal health and help you enjoy the hol­i­day season.

1. Set — And Keep — Bound­aries with Fam­i­ly Members 

Spend­ing time with your extend­ed fam­i­ly can be a blast — or it can be stress­ful. Around the din­ner table, all sorts of dif­fer­ent top­ics might come up for dis­cus­sion, and not every­one may agree. One way to pro­tect your stress lev­els and men­tal health is by set­ting clear bound­aries with your­self and with your fam­i­ly for the hol­i­day. Essen­tial­ly, bound­aries are what we will and will not allow. 

Dur­ing tricky con­ver­sa­tions, you can set the bound­aries ahead of time:

  • I real­ly want every­one to have a nice hol­i­day and look­ing back on pre­vi­ous hol­i­days, some top­ics haven’t gone over so well. This year, why don’t we steer clear of (insert your top­ic here).”
  • Last year we talked a lot about (insert top­ic) and it was pret­ty stress­ful for me. You all can talk about that if you like, and please don’t be offend­ed if I am not up to talk­ing about it this hol­i­day gathering.”

You can also rein­force bound­aries that have already been estab­lished with con­ver­sa­tion re-routers like: 

  • I don’t think we’re going to agree on this top­ic. Try­ing to con­vince each oth­er is going to be stress­ful. Let’s pick some­thing else to talk about instead like…
  • I don’t feel com­fort­able talk­ing about this with you, but I would love to hear about what’s going on in your life.” 
  • Thank you so much for shar­ing your opin­ion with me, you’ve giv­en me some­thing new to think about. I would love to chat about some­thing else though, so we don’t get too deep into this top­ic. Have you seen any good movies lately?”

You are the one who gets to choose the kinds of con­ver­sa­tions you par­tic­i­pate in and when. Maybe any oth­er day you would be ready to talk about dif­fi­cult issues, but that’s just not how you want to spend your hol­i­day. That’s okay. Remem­ber that you are only respon­si­ble for your own words and actions, not the respons­es of others. 

It’s not shame­ful or self­ish to want to set bound­aries around top­ics — or fam­i­ly mem­bers — who con­tribute to your stress. By think­ing through what kinds of sit­u­a­tions you don’t want to be in before you’re in them, you can feel more con­fi­dent in your response and less stressed out about how oth­ers might respond.

If the hol­i­day sea­son stress­es you out, sched­ule an appoint­ment with your pri­ma­ry care provider to iden­ti­fy options that may help you.

2. Get Enough Sleep 

The hol­i­day sea­son is busy — there’s no get­ting around that. But just because your to-do list is a lit­tle longer than usu­al doesn’t mean your sleep should suffer. 

Beyond being a lit­tle grinchi­er (which can lead to all sorts of stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, like snap­ping at your fam­i­ly), not get­ting enough sleep can actu­al­ly have a huge neg­a­tive impact on your body and mind, caus­ing health issues like:

  • Depres­sion
  • Dia­betes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart dis­ease
  • Kid­ney disease
  • Obe­si­ty
  • Stroke

Get­ting a good night’s sleep every night is a key part of main­tain­ing your men­tal health and avoid­ing an increased stress response. Sleep­ing gives both your body and your mind a break. How much sleep you get can impact your stress lev­els, but it also works the oth­er way around. High lev­els of stress can impact your abil­i­ty to sleep.

Set your­self up for a rest­ful night of 7 or more hours of sleep per night by:

  • Wak­ing up and going to bed at the same time each day
  • Not con­sum­ing caf­feine or alco­hol before bed. Since caf­feine has a half-life of 5 – 7 hours for most healthy adults (this means half the mil­ligrams of caf­feine you ingest will be in your sys­tem for 5 – 7 hours!) con­sid­er a caf­feine cur­few where you don’t have any past a cer­tain time. Alco­hol near bed­time can reduce the amount of deep and REM sleep you get (two types of sleep that help you wake feel­ing refreshed and rested.)
  • Not look­ing at your phone, TV, or lap­top for at least two hours before bed. If you need to, try to have your blue light fil­ter on (check the set­tings on your smartphone.)
  • Get nat­ur­al light first thing in the morn­ing when­ev­er pos­si­ble, and dim the lights in the evening. If you can’t flip on all the lights to help sig­nal to your body it is morn­ing. This will kick-start your body’s nat­ur­al mela­tonin pro­duc­tion so you should feel sleepi­er when bed­time comes around. 

3. Make a Hol­i­day Bud­get — And Then Fol­low It 

Buy­ing presents is a big part of the hol­i­day sea­son’s fun, but it can also be stress­ful. You may stress out over what to get some­one, how many peo­ple to buy presents for, and how much it costs. 

Your finan­cial health can impact your phys­i­cal and men­tal health — and when mon­ey gets tight, it can leave you with feel­ings of dread or stress. 

Take some time by your­self or with your fam­i­ly to cre­ate a bud­get that makes sense. Some fac­tors you can think about include:

  • Will you be trav­el­ing for the hol­i­days this year? If so, include expens­es like gas, plane tick­ets, food, or accom­mo­da­tions in your sea­son­al budget. 
  • Are there any free expe­ri­ences you can gift a fam­i­ly mem­ber? Tak­ing your mom to a free botan­ic gar­den or zoo might mean more than pur­chas­ing an item she won’t use. Qual­i­ty time is often an over­looked and very appre­ci­at­ed gift!
  • Do you want to set a price lim­it per per­son you’re buy­ing for — or for your over­all gift bud­get? If so, what is doable for your fam­i­ly right now?

These ques­tions can help get you start­ed think­ing about a per­son­al bud­get that works, but you can also bring dif­fer­ent ideas to your fam­i­ly or friend group to max­i­mize everyone’s sav­ings like a Secret San­ta or White Ele­phant party.

4. Remem­ber that stres­sors (events, things, peo­ple) and the stress response in the body are two sep­a­rate things.

Stres­sors are the things that hap­pen around us or to us. The stress response is the body and brain’s reac­tion to the stres­sors. When our body starts to expe­ri­ence the stress response, our auto­nom­ic ner­vous sys­tem flips on and we may feel a num­ber of things including: 

  • Rac­ing thoughts
  • Increased heart rate
  • Uncom­fort­able buzzy ener­gy in the body
  • Sweaty palms
  • Flushed and warm. 

If you notice these things, con­sid­er using empir­i­cal­ly sup­port­ed breath­ing strate­gies to calm the stress response. 

This can look like:

  • 4,7,8 breath­ing. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. This sends sig­nals to your ner­vous sys­tem to help you relax on a phys­i­o­log­i­cal level.
  • Do a quick body scan to notice where you may be hold­ing ten­sion. See if you can release those mus­cles while you take a few deep breaths. 

You get to decide how you think about the stres­sors, and that will influ­ence how you feel. Reframe your thoughts to be more use­ful and true. Instead of this is going to be awful, I just know it. I don’t have enough time and I’m already anx­ious,” tell your­self a more help­ful ver­sion that focus­es on your strengths. This may sound like: I am wor­ried about how much there is still to get done. I have han­dled this before and it turned out alright. I will focus on doing the best I can and know that is enough.”

The hol­i­day sea­son is a time of joy and fam­i­ly, but for many, it can also be a time of stress. Don’t put pres­sure on your­self to make the hol­i­day per­fect, just do your best to enjoy each moment as it comes. 

By focus­ing on the lit­tle things and tak­ing small steps to low­er your stress lev­els, you can enjoy your hol­i­day sea­son to its fullest. 

Hap­py Hol­i­days from Duly Health and Care!