An expert in mind body medicine and stress management offers advice on how to handle holiday stress.

If you add holiday stress management to your to-do list, you might have a more enjoyable time this year, says psychologist Ellen Slawsby, PhD, of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

During the holidays there is an increase in responsibilities, which can cause stress.

“Stress can ruin the holidays,” Dr. Slawsby says. “As much as the holidays are a happy, exciting, festive time, that also means there’s an increase in our responsibilities, which can cause stress.”

In November and December, people participate in traditions such as baking cookies, decorating the house, hosting parties and buying gifts — adding these activities to jam-packed family and work schedules.

Time management becomes one source of stress, Dr. Slawsby says. And anxiety about gathering with family members who have challenged us in the past is another.

Take A Breath

Dr. Slawsby says one of the easiest ways to manage stress is to take a moment to reflect. She suggests using a mini-relaxation technique. Take one breath in and think the word “peace.” Then, exhale and think the word “tension.” You can repeat this exercise for three to five breaths and do it as often as you want.

Ellen Slawsby, PhD
Ellen Slawsby, PhD

When you’ve completed the breathing exercise, choose your response to stress. You will likely gain a better perspective, Dr. Slawsby explains.

Identifying why you are anxious can reduce the urge to respond in anger and frustration.

If you feel pinched for time, think about taking shortcuts and not holding yourself to a standard of perfection.

If you are concerned about encounters with relatives, think positive thoughts, says Dr. Slawsby.

Make a plan for polite conversation topics and redirection from subjects you prefer to avoid. Focus on what you have in common, and know that, often, their hearts are in the right place, Dr. Slawsby says. She adds that you can always take a break during gatherings, by stepping into another room or outside.

Signs of Holiday Stress

Being aware of early signs of stress can help you avoid a meltdown. Two signs to watch for are irritability and poor sleep. Staying up late to work on projects, overindulging in alcohol and food, and anxiety can all contribute to sleep trouble. And poor sleep can cause irritability.

“The holidays don’t have to be perfect. We need them to be a good, joyous time.”

To soothe irritability, take a break, and focus on breathing. Then, look at your schedule. Can you take a vacation day, or a few hours to tackle holiday responsibilities so you don’t have to stay up late?

Many focus their attention on doing nice things for others this time of year, but it is also important to be kind to yourself, Dr. Slawsby says.

She suggests continuing to eat healthy, exercise and meditate. And to schedule time for your favorite activities, whether it be watching a movie or having breakfast with a friend.

Addressing Holiday Expectations

For some, social media has become all-consuming. Consider how much time it takes to post the perfect photo. Can you savor the moment and post after the event, or go tech-free for the holidays?

Then, try not to compare your holiday to others’.

“Just because someone has the most perfect-looking Christmas cookies on Facebook, doesn’t mean they are having the most happy holiday season,” Dr. Slawsby says. “We need to be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect. We need them to be a good, joyous time. And it doesn’t have to be just like last year.”

More Tips for Handling Stress

  • Pace your activity schedule. If you feel overwhelmed, politely decline invitations, or reschedule gatherings.
  • Don’t over do it. Presents look just as nice in holiday bags, which take less time to assemble and don’t have to arrive by a specific date. Bakery treats can be as delicious as homemade. Paper plates can make gatherings easier to host.
  • Ask for help. Younger children can act as food servers and clean up. Offer them small monetary tips to show appreciation.
  • Set a budget and stick to it. Overspending is a common holiday stress.

Ideas for Family Gatherings

  • Set aside family grievances. The expectation should be to enjoy the evening, not to make a point. If you need extra support before seeing family, seek professional help.
  • Take a break on extended vacations at family and friends’ houses. Go to a gym, get a massage, bring a good book to calm feelings of being overwhelmed when away.
  • Remember lovely memories of past holidays cannot be replicated year to year. Beloved ones die, parents age and children move away. Allow yourself to miss your loved ones and try new traditions. Seeking professional help for grief can be helpful.

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