“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Or is it?
Yes, the holiday season can be magical — with all of its dazzling displays of lights, parades, festive parties and fun family gatherings. But it can also be one of the most stressful times of the year, when Christmas shopping is unfinished, budgets get blown and out-of-town guests overstay their welcome.
Furman University Associate Professor of Psychology Cinnamon Stetler says it’s unrealistic to think you can eliminate all holiday stress.
“If you don’t have any stress, you’re not really engaging with life,” she says. “You should try to keep stress to a minimum, but it will not be something you can eliminate entirely.”
The key to managing stress is to recognize it and work to minimize it so it doesn’t overwhelm, according to Stetler.
Here are five ways to cope with holiday stress.
Have realistic expectations
Expecting the holidays to change people and familial relationships is unrealistic, Stetler says. Unless something has resulted in behavioral modifications or changed perspectives, the holidays aren’t likely to be any different than the rest of the year.
Realizing that everything won’t go exactly how you’d like is the first step, she says. Picturing what that event would look like if it went well and thinking about one or two things you can do to facilitate it can help. But you can’t control other people’s behavior, Stetler says:
“If your stress stems from other people’s actions, that’s largely out of your control — What you can do is limit your exposure.”
How traditions can weigh on us
Families change and grow. That can make maintaining holiday traditions difficult. “Reflect on why that tradition is so important to you and what about it carries the meaning. See if there’s a way to adapt the tradition while still maintaining the important pieces of it,” Stetler says. “While it is good to maintain traditions, they can cause extra stress if you feel you have to do it the same way no matter what.”
A different view of gifts
It’s easy to get caught up in the season’s commercialization. But buying a lot of gifts – especially those you cannot afford – will not bring happiness, especially when the credit card bills come due in January. It takes a concerted effort – and a plan – not to fall prey. Stetler recommends being more intentional in gift giving. Perhaps instead of buying a person several gifts, find one or two that will be meaningful to the recipient and make you feel like it was worth the money spent. Stetler also points out that research shows that while material things can bring short-lived happiness, more enduring happiness can come from doing things for others and taking the time to appreciate what we have.
The lasting memory
The holidays don’t have to be perfect. Stetler says what matters is the thought and effort put into preparing the meal or buying that present, not what it looks like in the end.
“What you will remember in six months or a year is probably not going to be that amazing dish or that amazing sweater you found,” Stetler says. “It will be that relationship and the effort you made.”
Be realistic. Don’t try to do more than is reasonable. Get plenty of sleep, watch your diet and exercise regularly. Find some time for yourself each day.
“Try to maintain as much of your normal routine as you can. You can treat yourself and indulge in small ways. The holidays are not the time to make big changes,” Stetler says. “Try to get a little bit of physical activity in, even if it’s a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood.”