- Dr. Lillian Nejad
How to Handle Holiday Stress
The holiday season is supposed to joyful but it's also prime time for stress! If your holiday season is more stressful than silly, read on...
What is stress?
Stress is a state of tension that occurs when there are too many demands in the environment. As well as having a physical effect on our body, stress can also affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
What triggers stress?
A wide variety of events or situations can trigger stress. These triggers can be both negative and positive in nature; for example, positive events like weddings, holidays, and promotions can trigger stress. Other examples of triggers are physical and mental health problems, relationship difficulties, being apart from family, deadlines for work, financial problems, being in crowds, public speaking, and simply too many things to do. There are also factors that make us more vulnerable to stress including poor eating and sleeping patterns, excessive drug use, lack of exercise, social isolation, physical illness, and lack of regular involvement in enjoyable and relaxing activities.
When does stress become a problem?
Contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad. People need a certain amount of stress to feel motivated to achieve goals and to face challenges in life. Stress that is too intense, too frequent, and/or long-lasting is unhealthy. (Too little stress can also be unhealthy but most of us don’t suffer from that!) Prolonged stress can have a range of negative consequences both for your physical and your mental health as well as for your quality of life.
Not everyone feels jolly during the holidays. In fact, for some, it’s the most difficult time of the year. In Australia, the holidays also mark the end of the school year so it's no wonder parents are feeling overwhelmed with end of year carols, recitals, concerts plus all the holiday get togethers, not to mention shopping, wrapping, cooking and the list goes on. It’s a prime time for stress.
What happens when you get stressed?
Stress can trigger a variety of responses including physical reactions like tense muscles and headaches, emotions like frustration and resentment, thoughts like, “I can’t take this anymore,” or “No one understands,” and behaviours like not making time to eat, or snapping at others. Stress also can lead to unhelpful coping behaviours like drinking or smoking.
What can you do about it?
There are several things that you can do to reduce stress in your life, here are five ideas to get your started.
Address lifestyle factors
Life can be demanding, leaving us feeling wrecked and stressed but have you noticed that some days you handle it better than others? Resilience isn’t a static trait—it’s like a muscle that weakens or strengthens and you get to decide if you work it or not. Don’t be defenceless when faced of stress, build resilience by addressing these five lifestyle factors everyday: Nutrition, Physical Activity, Sleep, Substances, Time-out for self
Chew on it: There is a connection between the quality and the quantity of food we eat and our energy levels, our mood, and our general health and well-being. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see the connection. A food diary can be a great tool to assess your current eating habits. Add a stress rating to the diary so you can see how your food intake is linked to your daily level of stress.
Get Physical: Well, we all know that exercise is important for physical health and well-being. Being active also improves mood, lowers anxiety levels, and reduces our vulnerability to stress. Get started by finding something you enjoy and can maintain: daily walks with a friend, Pilates, spin classes, cardio tennis, training for a fun run, sit-ups at home. And, yes, sex counts! While you are working out how to include daily physical activity in your life, try to incorporate incidental exercise by parking further away from your destination or going up stairs rather than lifts. Remember that any steps made toward a more active lifestyle are beneficial.
Sleep Deep: Quantity and quality of sleep are important factors to responding well to stress. People usually need between seven and nine hours. If you are getting this and are still feeling tired, the quality of your sleep may be the problem. Difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking, sleep apnoea, and not enough hours in deep sleep may all be factors that leave you feeling fatigued during the day. If sleep is a problem area for you, you can use devices like Jawbone or FitBit to monitor and record your sleeping patterns (or record in a sleep diary), and then see a specialist about your concerns.
Chemical Reactions: The use or overuse of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, over-the-counter medications and recreational substances can all affect your vulnerability and responses to stress. Conversely, not taking medications as prescribed can also have negative effects and make you more vulnerable to stressful conditions. If you’re chemically reacting, take steps to adjust your intake and seek support if needed.
Mejuvenate: Taking time for yourself is paramount to reducing your vulnerability to stress. Me-time is a mix of ‘alone’ time as well as time socialising with others. Choose activities that are fun, relaxing, comforting, entertaining or amusing. Whether alone or with others, making room for pleasant activities is necessary for optimal emotional health. You may find that you feel guilty or undeserving, just notice the feeling and then remind yourself that Me-time is on your “To-Do” list and get back to it!
Be Realistic Know what you can and can’t do. The holidays are demanding—work, kids, school, social obligations, and finances are all weighing on you at once. So expect that this period is going to be challenging, and at the same time, set boundaries for yourself and limits on others based on what you are willing to do and what you can do given your current situation and state of mind. If you don’t know your limits, others won’t either so be honest with yourself. If you find that you have over-extended yourself, keep readjusting your limits as you go along.
Comfort Yourself Sometimes all there is to do is give yourself comfort. Do soothing, calming activities like have a bath, go for a walk, listen to a relaxation or mindfulness exercise, watch a movie, light scented candles, snuggle up to a teddy bear, have a massage, or read a magazine. You may find that you feel guilty taking time out for yourself, just notice the feeling and then remind yourself that being kind to yourself will make it a lot easier to be kinder to others!
Lift Your Spirits A good laugh can be a much-needed reprieve from holiday stress and can help us take life and ourselves less seriously. For a dose of laughter, watch your favourite comedy, check out some stand-up live or online, read anything by Oscar Wilde, or Tina Fey, or have a look at the latest cat antics on YouTube.
Contribute Research shows that kindness toward others benefits the recipient as well as the benefactor. Contributing to others’ happiness actually leads to a boost in your own sense of well-being, both physically and emotionally. So get out there and do something nice for someone else, it can be as simple as giving someone a compliment to volunteering for an organization. See the following websites for ideas www.randomactsofkindness.org, www.govolunteer.com.au, and www.volunteer.vic.gov.au.
Go online instead of in line! Be efficient! There is no rule that says we have to spend ages in traffic and trying to find a car space and wait in line to get everything we need for the holidays. Everything these days can be delivered to your door. They can even come wrapped. Give yourself a break from all the crowds and frenzy and shop from the comfort of your couch. Don't just stop with Christmas shopping, it's a great way to get your grocery shopping done too!
If finances are getting you down, take advantage of all the free holiday activities on offer in your city or town. They might include checking out holiday lights on houses, street decorations, religious services, and local holiday concerts. Be practical with your gift-giving—suggest a Secret Santa process for big families or groups of friends so you only have to buy one gift at a set price rather than one gift for every person—both a cost and time-saving solution.
The holidays can feel like the worst time of year for some. If you are feeling low, always remember that you are not alone and there is always someone out there that can help. Have a plan that includes important phone numbers (your supports, crisis services) and a step-by-step process to follow if your mood goes beyond the ‘blues’ to a more severe emotional downturn. If you find it difficult to get out of bed, you have lost the will to take care of even your basic needs, you are finding that you are drinking or using substances to cope, or you are thinking about suicide—these are serious signs of depression that require immediate attention.
And remember, it’s called the “holiday” season—so make time to take a break, however you want to spend it—relaxing with friends, getting involved in anything that bring you joy, or doing absolutely nothing. That last one sounds good to me!
All the best to all of you over the holidays!