Health & Environment

Managing Holiday Stress

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension experts give advice on how to make the holidays merrier.
By Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications December 13, 2021

a tangled ball of christmas lights
The holidays can be a stressful time, so it is important to prioritize, plan and say “no” when necessary.

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While the holidays are a time of joy and sharing, they can also be a source of significant physical and mental stress. Managing holiday stress requires setting priorities as well as avoiding or reducing as many stressors as possible. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts offer tips to help you manage holiday stress and feelings of sadness.

Many people begin to feel unhappy around the holidays, and the reasons can range from the weather to personal loss, feeling disconnected from others, financial strain and myriad other reasons, said Miquela Smith, AgriLife Extension health specialist for the Disaster Assessment and Recovery Unit and a Mental Health First Aid instructor.

“In some instances, these winter blues can be more serious and affect how a person feels, thinks and handles daily activities,” Smith said. “Usually, holiday blues are temporary feelings of loss, anxiety, tension, frustration or loneliness. But more significant changes in mood or behavior could mean the person is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is a type of depression.”

Stress, unrealistic expectations or even sentimental memories can be a catalyst for holiday blues. Other factors can be less sunlight, changes in diet or daily routine, alcohol or the inability to be with friends or family. In addition to the blues, some people may experience anxiety during the holidays.

“Something that can help if you begin to feel overwhelmed during the holidays is recognizing what things are in your control versus what things are not,” Smith said. “This perspective can be valuable during the holidays when we are unable to keep to normal schedules and routines.”

She said an example might be responding to a family member you don’t get along with at a gathering.

“You can’t control what that person does or says, but you can control whether or not you spend time with or engage in conversation with that person,” she said. “Similarly, if a certain event or social gathering is stressful to you for whatever reason, you can make the decision to only stay for a short period of time.”

Smith said some additional tips for managing holiday stress and feelings of sadness include:

  • Acknowledging to yourself that it’s OK to feel unhappy
  • Sticking to familiar or normal routines as much as possible
  • Reaching out to others for support and companionship
  • Learning to say “no” to holiday activities you don’t have time for or that will likely cause stress
  • Eating healthy meals and getting adequate rest
  • Avoiding excessive eating and drinking
  • Incorporating regular physical activity into your daily routine
  • Taking the occasional breather to walk or listen to music

“Some people also reduce stress through mindfulness activities such as meditation or yoga,” Smith said. “Others may get a psychological benefit from doing something to help others during the holidays, such as volunteering to deliver meals. Try to find something to do that will make you feel more relaxed and promote your emotional wellbeing.”

Finally, Smith said, if in spite of your best efforts you are unable to turn those negative feelings around, it may be time to seek professional help.

“If you realize these symptoms have lasted for longer than a few weeks and your self-help tactics don’t seem to be helping, that could be your cue to consult your doctor or a mental health professional,” she said. “People who already live with a mental health condition should take extra care to tend to their overall health and wellness during the holidays since this time of year can be particularly stressful. As with any health condition, early intervention yields the best outcomes, and it is better to talk to someone sooner rather than later.”

Prioritize And Plan Ahead

“Holiday stress can come about from interpersonal relationships, financial pressures, time management issues, lack of sleep and a variety of other factors,” said Joyce Cavanagh, AgriLife Extension specialist in the agency’s Family and Community Health unit. “Financial pressure and time restrictions are often the top stressors during the holidays, so be sure to adequately plan your holiday shopping and family time.”

Cavanagh said be sure to budget for gifts you plan to purchase during holiday shopping and, whenever possible, pay using cash or a debit card.

“Be realistic when creating a budget by using real prices, not ballpark figures,” she said. “Don’t forget to include travel, food and entertaining costs into your holiday budget. And jot down what you’ve bought so you don’t lose track of how much you’ve spent.”

Cavanagh also noted a lot of time management-related stress can be alleviated by “padding in” some additional time when scheduling visits or entertaining and by asking others for help with holiday activities.

“Try to avoid multiple visits and build in extra time to provide flexibility and accommodate any unforeseen circumstances,” she said. “Prioritize what’s really important to you and your family, then plan your holiday activities accordingly.”

Manage Your Eating — And Expectations

Jenna Anding, an AgriLife Extension specialist the Texas A&M’s Department of Nutrition, said holiday stress can lead to overeating.

“For some individuals, overeating is a challenge to individual wellness during this time of year, especially if food is used as a means of responding to stress,” Anding said. “Be mindful of what and when you eat. And when given the opportunity, choose foods that are lower in saturated fats, salt and added sugars.”

Angela McCorkle, another AgriLife Extension specialist with the agency’s Family and Community Health unit, said it is important to keep expectations realistic during the holidays.

“Basing expectations or experiences on what we see on social media or in the lives of others can cause stress,” McCorkle said. “We can cause ourselves undue pressure to create share-worthy memories rather than enjoying the time with loved ones.”

She said it is important to focus on the positive experiences associated with the holidays and not be concerned with what other people are doing and what you might be missing.

This article by Paul Schattenberg originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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