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! 

  • I strongly believe in the benefit of self exploration in a safe, understanding, and non-judgmental environment. I whole heartedly believe in the power of holistic health practices including nutrition, movement practices, nature, and meditation/mindfulness to engage a more integrated sense of well-being. My personal practice style is one of empowerment in that I never pretend to know better than you do about what you need, think, and feel. I aim to collaborate with you to help you achieve your therapy goals and live YOUR version of your best life. My clinical style is integrative with incorporation of DBT, ACT, and CBT principles to suit the needs of the individual and have been experienced by my clients as gentle yet direct.