Reducing Holiday Stress

Recently I found myself behind a car whose license plate read: “IMEDIT8.” I couldn’t help but smile. I had been thinking about how stressful the holidays can get – it seems that everyone I speak with mentions in the same breath how the holidays are coming up so quickly and how busy they will be as a result. Quite often, it’s said in the tone of someone bracing for a huge undertaking.

Every year I find myself taking on a lot of extra responsibilities around the holidays, so I work hard to make sure I don’t overextend myself. I do this by continually reassessing what is necessary and what isn’t, what is possible and what isn’t. For example, during my first holiday season in the DC area after moving from Connecticut, I ended up driving for several hours there and back for Thanksgiving and Christmas. While it was wonderful to spend time with friends and family, I found myself exhausted, and not spending enough time in any one place. This year I chose to limit my travels to just Christmas, but for a longer period of time. So, while it would have been wonderful to spend time with close friends and family at Thanksgiving, avoiding the stress of too much travel will allow me to enjoy the time I do have with them that much more. Plus, I had a wonderful first Thanksgiving in Virginia!

In addition to trying to do too many things in too short a time, a large source of stress around the holidays comes from our expectations (even if only subconsciously) that everything should be perfect – our family will gather in peace and love, everyone’s wishes will come true and everyone will sing in perfect harmony. However, this Norman Rockwell ideal is generally not in line with the reality of the holidays. Often we become stressed striving for perfection that is neither attainable, nor even necessarily desirable.

It is important to be alert to signs that you are under too much stress such as irritability, anxiety, inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, headaches, neck and back pain, or stomachaches. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is probably time to take a breather, delegate, or drop the things that aren’t really necessary. Simplify.

There is an organization devoted to promoting the idea of simplifying our lives by de-emphasizing the material. The mission of New American Dream is to offer resources that make it easier to live consciously and buy wisely. Last year I attended an alternative gift fair that they sponsored, in which several local non-profit organizations were selling donation gift cards, which make great gifts for the people on your list who “have everything.” There is a Holiday Survival Kit that you can download from their website that includes a booklet on ways to make your holidays more simple and more enjoyable. It also features Gift of Time vouchers to print out and give to people instead of physical gifts, tips for a less stressful holiday season, and much more.

Here are some ideas on how to reduce your holiday stress:

1) Don’t demand perfection. Instead, focus on what is most important to you, and be realistic about what you can accomplish given your time and budget. Remember, the holidays are supposed to be joyful!

2) Set boundaries around how you are willing to allocate your time. If you feel overextended, realize that you don’t have to please everyone. It’s okay to spread out your visits, or have shorter ones.

3) Many experts recommend humor as one of the keys to surviving the holidays with family. On a physical level, it lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins, and diffuses tension. And from a mental perspective, it helps you to keep things in perspective – if you can laugh off your quirks and your family’s idiosyncrasies, potentially annoying situations will go more smoothly for you and those around you.

4) Take time for yourself. Make time for fun and relaxation: take a walk, play a game, read, meditate. It’s also important not to let exercise fall by the wayside. Exercise helps to reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase your energy and stamina by increasing levels of mood-enhancing, energy-promoting neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

Happy Holidays!

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