This time of year, there’s a lot of cultural pressure to feel happy, joyous and grateful. But in reality, a lot of people experience more stress and anxiety than holiday bliss. Sources of holiday stress include pressure to shop, cook, entertain, organize family gatherings and then, after the party’s over, pay off the bills.
We turned to two experts to offer some realistic advice before your blood pressure goes through the roof. Prakash Masand, M.D., is the president of Global Medical Education and a former consulting professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., is the director of the Yale Stress Center and renowned for her pioneering research on the science of stress.
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- Expect things to go wrong. The turkey may get overcooked or your kids may hate their Christmas gifts, but remember: These are not ultimately the most important things, says Dr. Masand. “Appreciate the season for the time spent with loved ones, create new memories and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
- Eliminate financial stressors. We all want to buy that perfect gift or prepare a memorable meal, but those (ephemeral) things can take a toll on your wallet and your stress levels. Besides, a modest but an individually selected gift can bring someone more joy than a generic big-ticket item. “Make a budget and stick to it,” says Dr. Masand. Your family and friends are more likely to remember a calm, happy you than what was under the tree.
- Let others help. This is a biggie. You don’t have to be the hero of the holiday season, says Dr. Masand. “Ask each person to bring a dish to dinner, make decorating a family activity where the kids help out and consider a grab-bag gift exchange where each person buys only one gift to alleviate the stress of having to get something for everyone.”
- Focus on one thing at a time. Easier said than done, of course, what with meal-planning, gift shopping and organizing family activities. Sinha shares something that works for her. “I tell my kids to think of the brain as a ball. If you have five different things going on at the same time, you’re dividing that ball into five pieces and breaking up your resources. Focus on one thing and commit to doing that for the next 10 minutes or whatever it takes. Then take a break and recoup before you do the next thing.”
- Don’t procrastinate. Get started a few weeks earlier and do a little at a time. By all means, says Dr. Masand, make a list!
- Take time for yourself. “I have people make a list of things they like to do, such as reading a book or getting a manicure — small things, but they’re positive,” says Sinha. “Those activities have been proven to decrease stress.”
- Maintain healthy routines. Whatever you do throughout the year to keep in check, don’t stop now. Keep going to the gym, running or biking. “You also want to get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, drink enough water and keep up with your social network,” says Sinha. “When you become stressed, you feel overloaded and your body starts to respond with increased heartbeats, blood pressure and stress hormones.”
- Don’t try to resolve family conflicts. This is the last thing you should try to do. “Many individuals use the family holidays to try to resolve long-standing issues with family members,” says Dr. Masand. “And this often has disastrous consequences — particularly when alcohol is involved. Save these matters for a later date, and ideally in a one-to-one conversation. “
- Stay in the moment. This sounds simple, but with so much going on, it can be particularly challenging. “Don’t act in the moment, just observe it," Sinha advises. "Observe your thoughts — then let go of them. Over time and with practice, you can almost free yourself from the urges that become actions and lead to trouble.”
- Take a break from electronic devices. The holidays are a wonderful excuse for a “digital detox.” Those seemingly innocuous beeps and pings actually have a physiological effect on us. “Your heart rate goes up and it takes a while to come down,” says Sinha. “While I’m all for the gadgets, I would absolutely say take a break from them.”
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