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Managing Holiday Stress

November 30, 2018

Holidays can be a particularly stressful time for everyone. There’s the cleaning and decorating to do, the relatives and friends to invite, the menus to plan, the cookies and cakes to bake, the gifts to buy and wrap, and the children to get dressed. Under these conditions, who wouldn’t feel stressed?

Nail down who’s responsible for what.

In fact, say experts, stress is to modern life what precipitation is to the rain forest: Inevitable. The key to coping, particularly at holiday time, is knowing how to use stress to get energized about the upcoming festivities and how to protect yourself from the kind of high anxiety that can turn you into a driven dog on 17 leashes. “It’s totally normal to feel stressed,” confirms Richard Earle, PhD, Managing Director of The Canadian Institute of Stress/Hans Selye Foundation. In fact, as Canadian stress pioneer, Dr. Hans Selye, has pointed out, stress provides the “spice” in life. “There are the wonderful ‘up’ emotions created by stress but it’s important to recognize that feelings like excitement come with the ‘down’ emotions too,” explains Dr. Earle.

Signs of Depression

  • feelings of sadness or irritability
  • feelings of sadness or irritability
  • a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • change in weight or appetite
  • change in sleep patterns
  • feelings of guilt
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering and/or making decision
  • experiencing more fatigue or a lower level of activity
  • experiencing more restlessness
  • experiencing a loss of enjoyment
  • feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • thoughts of suicide or death

If you answered “yes” to five or more signs, lasting for more than three weeks, you may be suffering from clinical depression. See your physician.

The good news? While the emotional highs and lows may be biochemically inevitable, each one of us can regulate how fast we’re pressing on the stress accelerator.

Here’s how:

Take a good, hard look at your expectations

Are they geared toward the kind of event that only a person working full-time inside the home for months could pull off? Well, given that so many couples now find themselves working outside the home just to make ends meet, this is the first holiday stress-buster you need to put into action. “All of us walk around with these fuzzy ideal images of how a great family holiday should be,” notes Dr. Earle. “Down below these images are the images of how things are really going,” he explains. “When the gap between the two images is really small, then what you’re imagining can feel really motivating. When the gap between what you envision and what you really have is big, however, this creates a lot of stress.”

Raise the real

Do this in a project management-type way so that you can get clear about what’s realistically achievable as well as the steps needed to get there. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as by sharing pictures, emails, or videos.

Plan ahead, share your vision, and delegate, delegate, delegate

Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup. Get input from family and then nail down who’s responsible for what. This will alleviate uncertainty, one of the things that drives stress universally. Make it clear to your husband, for instance, that one of his jobs this year is to pick up the gift to send to relatives in Newfoundland. Then forget about it.

Build a sense of fail-safe achievement

Ask yourself, at the beginning of each day, “What two small things can I do that, no matter what else happens, will make it a good day for me?” Then do these two small things—such as ordering the turkey early—and congratulate yourself for achieving them. 

Stick to a budget

You and your family should agree to an overall amount of money and how it’s going to be spent. If you have a particularly large family, develop a roster of rotating names for gift giving. While you’re at it, plan and budget for one enjoyable experience after the holiday as an antidote to “post-holiday blah’s.”

Acknowledge your feelings

If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.

Reach out to others

If you think that your situation is tough, compare notes with friends. Not only will you discover that you’re actually coping rather well, but you may find yourself in the position of making a helpful suggestion or two, such as that neat little store that’s having a 50% off sale. This is great for mental health, notes Dr. Earle, because when you act like a competent person, you feel like a competent person.

Count your blessings

Remember those less fortunate by volunteering in a seniors’ home, children’s hospital or soup kitchen for a few hours. Then set aside 10 minutes with your family and go through all the good things that have come your way this year. “While human nature often has us dwelling on the down side of life,” notes Dr. Earle, “when you look at your blessings, it raises hope that other good things will come.”

Take charge mentally

Instead of conjuring up images of every catastrophe that could befall your family celebration, think of everything that could go well. Then, don’t spend another second worrying about the quarrel Uncle Milty and Aunt Marge are sure to have again this year. Instead, admit how you feel and mentally rehearse how you’re going to handle the situation when it comes back to haunt you. This will help prevent “wheel-spinning worry,” says Dr. Earle.

Learn to say no

Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

Get moving

Perhaps one of the best ways to overcome stress during the holidays or any other time is to exercise regularly. Research shows that physical activity not only boosts your fitness and energy levels but can also elevate your moods. In addition, exercise has been found to reduce anger, tension, fatigue and confusion. Despite the many demands on your time, this is not the season to stop exercising. Indeed, when regular exercisers are inactive, they begin to feel depressed and fatigued after just one week, according to a study from scientists at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Exercise can also give you that much-acclaimed “runner’s high.” Indeed, research shows that rigorous physical activity of any kind pumps up production of endorphins, your body’s feel-good neurotransmitters.

Go for real foods (mostly)

Inevitably, at this time of year, you’ll be tempted with sugary, empty-calorie “treats” just about wherever you go. But to be your most energetic, focused and happy self, it’s best to eat foods that grow on trees or on the ground (vegetables and fruits) and to choose healthy fats (such as olive oil and flax seeds), lean protein (such as fish and organic chicken) and legumes, nuts and seeds.

Do something nice for yourself

Take a break. Schedule a post-party facial or pedicure. Take the dog for a long walk. Take in a movie you’ve been wanting to see. After all, there should be something in the holiday for you, not just for everyone else. Ask yourself what you can do to create more of a feeling of freedom and competence for yourself. “Stress management really begins with taking yourself seriously in the best sense,” points out Dr. Earle. In other words, are you getting out what you’re putting in? There should be some return on your investment! If you have doubts, talk to your spouse or a friend to come up with some ideas about what will work best for you.

Seek professional help if you need it

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings persist, consider speaking to a mental health professional through your Employee Assistance Program so that you can ensure a happier, safer holiday season.


Happy Holidays!