Chill Out

How to thaw holiday stress

The family dog is chomping on the holiday roast, which has just dropped out of your hands and fallen on the kitchen floor. The kids are soaking the couch in the family room with the water pistols Santa delivered. You still haven’t sewn that button on the sweater that Mom gave you, and she’s driving four hours to the Triangle to be at your house this afternoon. A dozen relatives are already in the living room, but your spouse is off showing a friend the new power tools.


In the media and in our imaginations, the holidays are a magical time when dreams come true. So why do they feel like giant balls of stress? And how do you turn them back into wonderful times to share with friends and family?

To find out, Carolina Woman turned to The American Psychological Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., which is the world’s largest association of psychologists, with more than 150,000 members.

“It is normal to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season. The pressure to have the perfect holiday can be extraordinary,” says Dr. Katherine Nordal, former executive director for professional practice for the APA.

“It is important to put things in perspective and realize that the materialism of the holidays isn’t the real spirit of the season. The holidays are about family and togetherness, not tinsel and presents.”

Women are more likely than men to report heightened stress levels during the holiday season, the APA reports, and they’re less likely to take time to relax or manage that stress in healthy ways.

Research shows that stress, and the unhealthy behaviors people use to manage it, contribute to some of our country’s biggest health problems, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Those who manage stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating, drinking and smoking, are likely to have their physical health negatively affected over time, as opposed to people with a healthy lifestyle, notes Dr. Russ Newman, a long-serving professor of clinical psychology.

“My advice is to pay attention to what causes stress and to find healthy ways to manage it,” says Newman. “Everyone responds to their stress in some way. The key is handling stress in a manner that doesn’t make things worse.”

There are conscious steps you can take to ensure a worry-free season. The association offers four major strategies as well as answers to specific questions:

Have realistic expectations.
No Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or other holiday celebration is perfect; view inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory.

To start with, set realistic goals. Take small, concrete steps to deal with holiday tasks instead of overwhelming yourself with aims that are too far-reaching for a busy time.

Remember what’s important.
Remind yourself that a great celebration is about the people, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations or gourmet food.

Try to consider stressful situations in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing events out of proportion.

Take time for yourself.
There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. Remember that you’re only one person and can accomplish only certain things.

Others will benefit when you’re stress free, so pay attention to your own needs and feelings, which keeps your mind and body primed to deal with stressful situations.

Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing.

All of us need some time to recharge our batteries — by slowing down you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals. Go for a long walk, get a massage, listen to your favorite music or read a new book.

Seek support.
Talk about your anxiety with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution for your stress.

View the holidays as a time to reconnect with people, which includes accepting help and support from those who care about you.

Q: How can I deal with continuing family problems during the holidays?

A: Being realistic is the first step. If you have bad feelings about someone, try to avoid him or her. Don’t make an issue of it, but don’t pretend that all is well. This will enable you to feel true to yourself and less stressed out.

Q: How do I handle feeling pressed for time?

A: People shouldn’t have to put their lives on pause or totally rearrange their schedules because of the holidays. Learn to prioritize the invitations you accept and don’t feel that you have to go to every gathering.

Q: How do I cope with the holidays when I’ve just experienced a tragedy, death or romantic break-up?

A: If you’re feeling really bad because of any chronic or current stressors, like a death or recent romantic break-up, you may want to avoid some of the festivities because they are so out of sync with how you’re feeling. Try to tell those around you what you really need, since they may not know how to help you, and ask for their understanding if you decline an activity.

Q: What are some good coping strategies if I start feeling like the Grinch?

A: Take stock of your expectations and make sure they’re realistic. Don’t expect more of this time of year than of any other. If necessary, take a break from holiday music and television specials.

Most people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. Trust your own instincts, and don’t try to be what you’re not. Keep up your normal routine and know that this day, too, shall pass.