Christmas can be a very stressful time of year. For many the Christmas holiday period is a mass of complex social interactions with family or relatives, some of whom you may rather not see. There could well be expectations, or at least perceived expectations, to create a ‘wonderful Christmas’ with presents and perhaps the most important meal of the year. We toss the "stress" word around so much these days that it’s easy to forget what it actually means.
Stress is a physiological response to a change in our environment; it involves the release of certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When the change is one-off and quick, like abruptly swerving your car to avoid an accident, the hormone surge is short-lived. But when changes are persistent, as they tend to be during the holidays, the stress response becomes chronic, and the body pays a price (among other things, chronic stress impairs immune-system function).
Try some of the following to help you control your own stress levels:
Set a sensible schedule.
Do. Not. Overbook. Holiday stress often begins when we feel pulled in several directions at once. Avoid this trigger by mapping out your holiday schedule and try avoiding a pile-on of commitments.
Learn to say "no."
Accept that your serenity may come at the cost of missing a few holiday dates. And if you feel the need to, try scheduling make-up dinners in January, when the calendar is often light and everyone tends to have a little bit more time.
Reward yourself, ideally with some alone time. Taking just 20 minutes a day away from the crowds (even if “the crowds” are your own family) can do wonders for your ability to manage holiday stress. Alone time gives your brain a chance to reboot, so that you’re calmer, more focused, and less likely to snap into fight-or-flight mode at the slightest provocation.
The term anxiety is often used interchangeably with stress, but it actually means something quite different. Where stress is a response to the moment at hand, anxiety is a feeling of worry or dread over anticipated moments or events. The holiday season—with its parties, present exchanges, and the months-long swirl of anticipation that accompany both—can be an especially fertile breeding ground for anxiety.
Here's how to help yourself:
Setting the bar too high at the outset is a great recipe for holiday anxiety. So, your house does not have to be spotlessly clean to entertain; your meal does not have to be made completely from scratch. You do not have to buy perfect presents for everyone. And it's okay if some family traditions slip through the cracks.
Remember the basics
It can be easy (and very tempting!) to forget about the steps you normally take to stay healthy and upbeat, like eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. But those natural elixirs are more important than ever when holiday chaos descends. A lack of sleep increases the likelihood of anxiety attacks. And exercise has been shown, time and again, to stave off both anxiety and depression.
Mind the moment
One of the best ways to avoid worrying about an unpredictable future is to ground yourself in the here and now. Mindfulness, the practice of focusing on and appreciating the present—often through deep breathing, quick meditations, and literally stopping to smell the roses (or poinsettias, as the case may be)—is witnessing a surge of popularity. So far, scientific studies of the practice have had mixed results. But at least some evidence suggests it can work well against anxiety.
Let there be light
The biology of seasonal sadness is simple: Less sunlight and darker days induce the brain to produce more melatonin (a neurochemical that promotes sleep), making some people lethargic and ultimately depressed. To counteract this process, try opening the curtains and sitting near the window more often. Or bundle up and go for a brisk walk each day when the sun is high.
While you should certainly take some time for yourself, it's also important to have some social interaction, particularly if you're feeling down.
Stay the course
If you take medications for depression or anxiety, or if you’re seeing a therapist, and those strategies were working well before the holiday season began, don’t change them now. Be patient if you experience a rough patch, and trust that what’s worked before will see you through again. And remember that this, too, will pass. Not even the holiday season lasts forever.