Even for naturally chill people, the buzzing holiday joy can easily dissolve into stressful chaos. The increased spending, increased travel, logistics, hosting, calories, cold and flu bugs, pleasing, guilt, time, and then the feelings.
Oh, everyone’s feelings.
Mom! Grandma! Siblings! In-laws! Friends! Your new boyfriend! Your ex-boyfriend! You often can’t stop thinking about their feelings and expectations—often at the cost of neglecting your own.
Don’t hide in the chimney just yet. If you play your cards right, the holidays can actually wholly relax you to the bone. Here are five hacks to tackle holiday stress, according to the experts.
01. Pace Yourself
To keep stress levels from spiking when the world around you is moving at warp speed, Dr. Josh Klapow, Chief Behavioral Scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and host of The Web Radio Show, says that intentional pacing is paramount.
“All the signs will be pushing you to do more, interact more, accomplish more than anyone is capable of,” he says. “This will drive your baseline anxiety levels up.” He explains that by pacing our activities, we can actually do more for longer while keeping our anxiety in check. The key is not to overdo it. “Pay attention to your schedule, particularly to events that are anxiety triggers.”
Keeping a healthy pace depends on what you know you’re able and willing to give so that you don’t end up burnt out and resentful. If a stressful dinner party is happening on Friday, you may want to schedule nothing on Saturday or relaxing over coffee with your best friend. Remember: Self-care is not selfishness.
02. Focus on Gratitude
There’s a lot of evidence that gracious isn’t just a nice thing to be—it also greatly facilitates in coping with stress. Carl Sheperis, Ph.D., Program Dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix, says, “The way we think influences the way we feel and behave. If we focus on the negative, then the way we view the world becomes much dimmer. In contrast, if you can find elements of gratitude and focus on those, you are likely to be more content.”
Fortunately during the holidays, there’s plenty to be grateful for. You can start with the obvious: loved ones, a roof over your head, good food, and presents, even if you don’t like them.
03. Practice the Art of Letting Go
The holidays often mean family, and family can sometimes open up old wounds. It can feel like they just don’t “get” you—but they certainly get how to push those buttons!
Jamie Price, wellness expert and co-founder of the award-winning meditation app Stop, Breathe & Think, says that learning how to “let go” can help with “feeling compelled to fix or change [family].” She recommends doing a “body scan meditation,” which studies show can reduce stress and help focus on being mindful.
“A simple body scan involves focusing your attention on each part of your body from your head to your feet with open curiosity—without judging or trying to change your experience. The body scan is an opportunity to practice letting go of the impulse to change whatever is happening to conform to what you think ‘should’ be happening, by simply being present with your body instead.”
The holidays are the worst time to try to achieve perfection—it doesn’t exist. When you start to feel tense or you notice your heart rate going up, it’s time for a body scan. It’s time to let go.
04. Fully Engage with Your Loved Ones
The holidays are one of the few excuses left to turn off your phone and really get away. Price recommends using this time to “connect face-to-face with someone you love. Immerse yourselves in something you like to do together; for example, cook a meal, play a game, get outside for a walk or a hike. Enjoy being fully present and focused on that activity.”
This can really enhance not just the holiday—it can also renew your spirit. For me, being in the crisp, cold outdoors with people I love is just what the doctor ordered. Studies suggest that this kind of focused awareness “may reduce emotional reactivity to negative stimuli.” I call it “killing two birds with one stone.”
05. Prioritize Silence and Meditative Tasks
Don’t think about it as “me time.” Think about it as “necessary to survive time.” According to Dr. Klapow, we can do this by focusing on quiet, meditative tasks. “Anything that you find enjoyable is perfect,” he says. “But it must be something that you want to do, not what you think you should do. If baking relaxes you, then bake. If baking stresses you out, then get away from the kitchen. Carve out time for activities that by definition will relax you.” He suggests making sure to schedule these in because they’re often the “first to go in busy schedules.”
To keep a pulse on your feelings, Dr. Klapow also recommends checking stress levels often—measuring them on a 1 to 10 scale (10 being completely stressed out). Do this morning, noon, afternoon, and night. “If you see yourself hovering around a 5 to 7, then engage in these [meditative] activities.” It will help you stay and feel balanced. It will also help in pacing yourself (see point #1).
The holidays trigger all kinds of feelings—but you can have a handle on which ones they trigger. Ultimately, remember that your mental health is your biggest gift—to yourself and everyone around you.
Photo Credit: Violet Short