I love the holidays. I buy gifts for those less fortunate and enjoy celebrating with friends and family, and if I’m really lucky, there’s some snow. No stress. But now, I have twin infants, so I’m willing to bet the holidays are about to get a lot more hectic at my house — if not now, then in years to come.
For many people, though, the holidays are more than hectic. Family obligations, work parties, extra food and alcohol — all of it can lead to added stress that hurts us mentally and physically.
What can you do about holiday stress? I asked Kim Penberthy, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.
Christmas in July: Prepare for the Holidays Year Round
For many people, doing something to prevent stress ahead of time works, says Penberthy. If you keep yourself healthy all year, you’ll be prepared and better able to manage the inevitable holiday stress. Penberthy suggests that you try to:
- Eat healthy
- Get enough sleep
- Not overdo alcohol
- Get plenty of exercise
“These are common sense things, but we forget about it,” says Penberthy.
Last-Minute Tips to Combat Holiday Stress
But let’s say you don’t prepare all year. You don’t exercise. You stay up late watching your favorite shows. You drink and eat pizza. Then what do you do? It’s not too late, says Penberthy.
Set realistic goals.
The biggest issue Penberthy sees is patients with unrealistic expectations. “The holidays aren’t going to be this magical time when everyone gets along,” she says. “Your sister-in-law who’s always mean to you isn’t suddenly going to be nice. We set ourselves up for failure when we hope Uncle Joe won’t drink too much or we’ll find extra money for gifts.”
Focus on an attitude of gratitude.
“We lose sight of gratitude,” she says. “We live in a country where we can celebrate whatever holiday we want. That alone is something to celebrate.” Helping others by volunteering at a shelter or donating gifts is a good idea, Penberthy says. “It really will reduce your stress,” she says. “Because suddenly, if the day isn’t perfect, it doesn’t stress you out as much because it’s not that big of a deal. If you’ve been at a shelter handing out canned cranberry sauce, it doesn’t really matter if your mother-in-law doesn’t like your homemade sauce.”
Be responsible for yourself.
“You can’t control others. You do have control over you” and your reactions to others.
One drink or one piece of pie is enough. You don’t have to go back for more. “It’s tempting because we’re celebrating, but really, celebration doesn’t equal excess.” On the other hand, don’t start a diet the day after Thanksgiving. “This is not the time to stress yourself out,” Penberthy says.
Need More Tips? Check out this cool video for a few more ways to make your holidays brighter.
Setting Holiday Expectations With Kids
If you have kids, you need to prepare them for the holidays. That year-round preparation works for them as well as you.
• Don’t overindulge your kids all year long. If you do that, it’s harder to set limits at the holidays, Penberthy says.
• Have a conversation about what the holidays mean to you. It doesn’t have to be lengthy.
• If you have financial issues, be honest with your children. You can still celebrate even if money is tight.
• Maintain a routine around the holidays. Your kids can spend Christmas Day in their pajamas, but don’t use the holidays as an excuse to break all the rules. Getting back into a routine will be much harder after the holidays.
Still Need Help?
If you try all of this and you’re still stressed out, you may need more help. Signs you need help:
- The stress interferes with your ability to function
- You worry all the time
- You’re physically and mentally exhausted
If you’re experiencing any of these signs, talk to your primary care doctor, who can help you and see if you need additional help from a specialist.
The good news, says Penberthy, is that there’s help. Cognitive behavioral therapy and medications can help people who get clinically depressed or anxious. Don’t have a primary care doctor? Find one here.
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