Christmas is around the corner and it brings a lot of stress for many people. The shopping, the cooking, the crowds, the fear of disappointing gifts, the entire family coming together after a long time – all of these factors can overwhelm the cheery music and holiday decorations all around.
“I had a patient once who would stress too much over the family coming over,” Richard Zinbarg, Ph.D., Psychology Professor at Northwestern University and director of the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program at The Family Institute. “She felt responsible for everybody else having a good time. She’d arrange meals, plan the activities [with her grandkids] and if everyone wasn’t happy and smiling all the time, she’d view that as her fault.”
In general during the holidays people are more “off-center,” Zinbarg says, because they experience more emotions that they are used to.
Stress is a huge deal for college students as well, according to Dave Golden, Program Director of Public Health and Communications of the Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota. “Going back to their parents especially after being emancipated for a few months can be very tense.” There are too many things that are out of their control – from how their relatives will act to what people are cooking or doing. “It’d great to recognize that you can’t control it and you shouldn’t try.”
One very helpful action you can take to prevent feeling overwhelmed, according to Golden, “is to acknowledge that stress is coming.” Then plan in advance how you are going to take care of yourself. It’s important to take time to do the things you enjoy such as seeing old friends and engaging with people you like.
Two main tools have proven effective when handling stress, according to studies: Cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness. The first is about seeing things from someone else perspective, Zinbarg says. “I would tell my patient to fast-forward 60 years into the future and let’s say this is one of your daughters and they are doing this, what would you say to them?” This is the “go-to” strategy in therapy when dealing with stress.
Mindfulness has three basic principles. One is being in the present moment. “Generally when we are stressed out, we tend to […] live in the past and criticize ourselves for what we did in the past.” Try to avoid that as much as possible. “Your body exists in one time only and it’s only the present that matters.” The second basic principle is compassion. Remember to be kind to yourself and not too critical. “As we would towards our baby when they’re crying – we won’t yell, we’ll pick them up and hug them.” The third is cultivating gratitude. Research shows that it has beneficial effect on physical and mental health.
“Managing stress is very personal,” Golden adds. Some people are better at dealing with conflict than others. Following is a list of different actions people with various habits and preferences can take to handle stress during the upcoming holidays.
1. Just walk away
Stress isn’t going to go away but you can. This is a time of the year when people tend to reflect on what hasn’t gone well, Golden says, “and a lot of things come up.” When you know this will happen, leave the room. Go outside and get some fresh air or talk to other people. Or consider having family get-togethers in restaurants. People tend to be more reserved when they are in public and don’t pick on others.
2. Stay out in the sun
Sunlight increases the level of serotonin (known as the “happy” hormone) in your body. Light therapy – using a light box for a couple of hours a day – is considered one of the most effective ways for people to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So be outside during sunny days or stay by the window