November 15th, 2022

A Primer on Holiday Stress

We have a battle going on in my house that reflects society at large: the early creep of holiday decorations. It used to be no Christmas tree before Thanksgiving, now the battle begins before Halloween. My wife has even corrupted our four-year-old who has been asking to set up the tree more than he’s been asking for his Halloween candy. So far, I’ve held strong, but it doesn’t look promising. So as I prepare myself for Christmas music everywhere and holiday lights up in the house before Thanksgiving, I thought I would do a quick rundown on ways to preemptively deal with holiday stress.

First, it’s normal for the holiday season to be stressful. We have a bunch of changes to our schedules and routines, mostly outside of our control. We perhaps have extra pressure on our finances and expectations that we didn’t get to set ourselves. And many of us will have plans to see some aspect of our family of origin. Any of these items by itself would be stressful, but all of them together are highly likely to cause stress. For too many of us, as our stress levels go up, our stress relief goes down. We fall victim to the idea that we don’t have time for stress relief, or that somehow stress relief is just a recreational activity that we can put on hold for two months and somehow still be somewhat sane afterwards. Sorry, but your brain doesn’t work like that. It’s a direct correlation between stress relief and happiness (seriously, new research on this topic is astounding! Happy people report doing more things that make them happy, it’s a direct and causal relationship). So, we need to start there, as more stress comes into your life, you need to have more stress relief. Stress in, stress out, otherwise you’re unhappy and/or mentally unwell.

A second paradigm shift that will be helpful is to take note of the natural environment around us. Winter (talking to my northern hemisphere peeps here) is a time of hibernation, of resources being used slowly and purposefully. It contributes to our cognitive dissonance to live our lives ignoring our environmental surroundings. So, to promote congruence with your environment, think about how you can hibernate this season, or how you let something go dormant for a season before coming back to it with renewed energy. We get caught up thinking about all the extra things we need to do, but that’s not natural for this time of year. It’s a slow, quiet time of year. Capitalism can try to force us to engage in Black Friday shopping and last minute trips to the mall (ha, malls, remember those!?!?), but the reality is we’re cold, we need to bundle up and drive slowly, our surroundings are pushing us to slow down. So don’t get caught up in all the extra, but find stillness and look for what can take a rest for part of the year.

I say this often to my ADHD folks, and remind myself, automate and delegate. We want things to run automatically if we have the tools/means, and we want to delegate more than we take on ourselves. If the holidays are about family time and togetherness, then the extra work and tasks of the holidays should also be shared. You’re hosting? Great, why in the world would you also plan to make all the food. Make a dish, then delegate the rest. Or whatever makes sense, this isn’t a firm boundary, but take stock of what resources you have (mentally, physically, emotionally, financially) and be confident in sharing the burden. Hibernation for the animal world comes at the end of a season of harvesting and storing up, and while humans aren’t required to have that lifestyle we can learn a useful lesson in the intentional, slow use of resources. 

Lastly, and it’s already been mentioned in the previous tips, but set realistic expectations. If the holidays are stressful for you every year, plan on them being stressful again. If grandpa always misgenders you during the Thanksgiving meal, make a plan for that. Too many of us buy into the Hallmark idea that the holidays are magical and miracles can happen at any minute. Not to be a Scrooge, but that doesn’t actually happen. Most people are more stressed during the holidays, so it isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. Account for the stress, make a plan for how to manage it better than in years past, and make time for yourself. True time for yourself for stress relief, and time for whatever you personally like most about this season. If you love cozy blankets and hot cocoa, make time for it. If you like skiing or ice skating, enjoy it. Make time for the enjoyable parts of the season, not just taking on the stressful time. Carve time out for those happy activities and you can hopefully have a happier and healthier holiday season this year.