As the air becomes crisp and the leaves change color, the delicious scents of apple cider, and pumpkin spice once again fill the air. The beginning of the holiday season delights the senses and reminds us that many weeks of cooking, hosting, and shopping are just around the corner. Self-care should not be neglected while you prepare for this wonderful time of celebration and friends.
For many, the holidays can be a challenging time of year. 80% of people report moderate to severe stress by the time New Year’s Day finally arrives. Contrary to expectation, research indicates that people find the season of good cheer as stressful as asking for a raise! Today, we will explore the best strategies for mitigating this seasonal anxiety. As you consider potential strategies, always remember that you should seek help if you need it. If the symptoms you experience do not change or worsen, consider reaching out to a psychologist or personal counselor.
Tis the Season? Some Reasons Why Holidays Are Stressful
When considering the sources of seasonal pressure, remember that a certain amount of stress is an inevitable part of life. Good mental health is not about eliminating stress; rather, it’s about learning to respond in a healthy way. Scientists think a certain amount of stress actually helps make our lives fulfilling.
With this in mind, it’s evident that the holidays involve many taxing activities such as hosting guests, cooking meals, shopping for presents, and cleaning your living space will likely pop up on your to-do list more often than usual. Unfortunately, the marketing surrounding holidays does little to mitigate this workload, contributing to the tension by creating an artificial sense of built-up anticipation. Add to that the ever-present social challenge of balancing between excessive and insufficient togetherness with friends and family, and you’ve got one tricky time of year.
Relaxation Responses: Cultivating Mindfulness
According to Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist, the body’s initial response to stress is physical- the heart rate and breathing increase, and the muscles tighten. These physical responses initially developed as a survival mechanism. Dr. Benson recommends developing a “relaxation response” mechanism to deactivate natural stress. Learning a relaxation response equips you to start confronting your stress from the comfort of your own home.
The most common relaxation response discipline is breath focusing. You attempt to empty your mind of distracting, upsetting thoughts by fixating on long, slow, deep breaths. Breath focusing functions as a cornerstone for several other relaxation response disciplines, such as mindfulness meditation, which trains the mind to contemplate presentness rather than the past or the future, and yoga, which challenges the body’s flexibility to calm the mind.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
Now that we understand how a natural defense mechanism intensifies stress responses, it should come as no surprise that biological causes also contribute to holiday stress. Consider tweaking your lifestyle a bit as you attempt to decrease seasonal stress. To begin, take stock of your habits. Reduce your caffeine intake if you find yourself consuming an excess of five cups of coffee per day, as high doses of this energizing chemical produce jitters and anxiety. Exercise regularly to counteract stress hormones in your brain with positive endorphins, and eat a healthy snack before scenarios where you might be tempted to gorge yourself on junk food. Top this regimen off with a dietary supplement or two – lemon balm and kava kava possess beneficial anti-anxiety properties – and you’ll be feeling better in no time!
It’s All about Outlook
Psychiatrist Dan Siegel says that successfully fighting back stress boils down to “priming” your brain for positive responses throughout the day. Therefore, set your intention on enjoying the holidays as much as possible, and take a moment to notice when things are going well. Fred Bryant, a researcher at Loyola, found that dwelling on a positive emotion for just 15 to 30 seconds increases neural connections and makes a lasting positive memory possible.
When things go wrong, take a moment to acknowledge your feelings and their causes – whatever those may be. Think of this as “emotionally taking stock.” If you’re still upset about the situation, write it down. Start with what you’re grateful for. However, only afterward make a list of the sources of your stress.
Thriving During the Holidays
Ultimately, the key to a happy holiday season is accepting the time for what it is. Don’t impose unrealistic expectations on yourself or others. Instead, establish a budget, set your priorities, and permit yourself to say no when you feel overwhelmed. If you develop mindful habits and a positive outlook, you will find yourself much better equipped to acknowledge the sources of holiday stress for what they are and enjoy the season all the more. Armed with these helpful tactics, you can dive headfirst into wrapping paper and recipes this December and come up at the end of it all with a big smile on your face!