Traditionally, the holidays are presented as a time to gather as families and join in laughter and enjoy good food. Whether or not you have this experience, the holidays can bring stress related to relationships, finances, memories, loneliness, and health. Many people run around at a frantic pace trying to meet every expectation — What gifts do I give? What credit cards still have room for those gifts? Do I have the perfect picture to send out with the Christmas cards? Who can I go with to the holiday party? What do I wear? What should I eat? Perhaps your elevated expectations came from the classic movie White Christmas or Norman Rockwell’s famous paintings. Maybe they originated from your mother or wanting to live up to your neighbors or your friends’ Instagram page. It’s time to re-evaluate those picture perfect holiday expectations and let go of the shame when we don’t meet them. How can we enjoy the holidays while still meeting our obligations? Here are a few ways to reduce stress during the holiday season:
1. Identify your priorities
This is an opportunity to place those areas that are the most important at the top. This is not an exercise in shame and feeling badly for the areas where we perceive we have acted poorly. Let’s begin. What are the most important priorities of your life? Take time to write down the top 3 areas of importance for you. Some suggestions are: family, friends, God, work, service, independence, creativity, social justice, or community. Next, consider your recent thoughts and time spent associated with those areas. How have you been doing in the past 2 weeks? Have you taken time out of your schedule to place these priorities first? For example, if you have chosen family as a priority, have you spent more time shopping than enjoying a dinner together or talking on the phone? If you chose social justice and community, have you taken time to volunteer at a local shelter or have it scheduled in your calendar? Finally, what ways can you place your priorities first during the holidays? Make the moments count. Be present with those around you. Instead of thinking about the next activity or responding to emails, talk with others and be present. If you are finding it difficult to find the time to be with the people you love or do the things that are important to you, schedule it and follow through.
2. Remove distractions
Now that you have identified your priorities, the next step is to remove the distractions which will move you farther away from what is most important in your life. What is standing in the way of spending more time doing what you enjoy and being with the people you value? It may be working extra hours, technology, fear of not being accepted, or running around in an effort to make everything perfect. If you have difficulty recognizing the distractions, check with a trusted friend or loved one for assistance. Make the effort to remove these barriers which impose on your time, energy, and money. These distractions will not bring you the same satisfaction as focusing on your priorities.
3. Take care of yourself
When stress increases, it is common for people to put their health on the back burner. It is important to continue to exercise, eat healthy foods, and get a good night sleep to continue to handle the extra stress associated with the holidays. If you are experiencing a higher level of anxiety during the holidays, you are not alone. Take a few moments to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness focuses on the moment and remaining non-judgmental. You may practice deep breathing exercises, focusing on slow breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. You may choose one of your senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and focus your attention on the sense for 1 minute. For example, if you choose to focus on sound, close your eyes and focus on just what you can hear around you. These exercises will assist to reduce racing thoughts, anxiety, and depression.
4. Let go of the shame
If you are the type of person who uses vocabulary like “could,” “would,” or “should,” you may be dealing with feelings of shame. Focus on doing your best and accepting it. What your best is when extra stress is upon you may look differently from your best when everything is going smoothly. Be nice to yourself. Identify a strength you have or a positive statement about yourself and review it daily. In addition, if a person or an event does not meet your expectations, try to focus on what went well instead of the aspects that did not meet your expectations. Changing your perspective and re-framing the situation will increase your overall well-being.
5. Be Grateful
Research demonstrates that people who are able to express gratitude report an improved mood and well-being compared to those who were not grateful and remained focused on the negative aspects of their lives. Try to find one thing to be grateful for each day. This may be a simple event, the ability to see a sunset, or a positive interaction with someone. It is helpful to share it with someone or write it down. This attitude of gratitude can increase your level of happiness and assist you in reducing stress. It is possible to reduce the stress of the holidays and increase your ability to focus on the moment and positive areas of your life. Through identifying your priorities, removing distractions, taking care of yourself, letting go of the shame, and being grateful, you will reduce your stress, increase healthy relationships, and enjoy the holidays.