We love the holidays, but with so much on our plates, it’s no wonder 88 percent of us say our anxiety levels soar this time of year. Here are five simple ways to tame holiday stress and savor the joy of the season.
After a long, stressful year, you can’t wait to spend time with loved ones you haven’t seen in ages. This holiday is going to be the best ever, you tell yourself. Determined to put together a perfect day, you feel even more pressure than usual to make the yummiest homemade stuffing, the juiciest turkey and the happiest memories. But soon your stress levels are on overdrive. Instead of enjoying the holiday, you find yourself feeling thankful that it will soon be over.
“This year, holiday stress is higher than ever because we know life is fleeting, and we want to make every moment count,” observes psychologist Jenny Taitz, Ph.D. “But many of us focus too much on making the day ‘perfect,’ and overload our schedules to please everyone, which can be downright depleting and disappointing.”
Indeed, this pressure is tantamount to performance anxiety, making us believe we have to fulfill a certain role — top chef, ideal host, loving daughter/mother/wife — to deserve affection. “But this false narrative sets a dangerous precedent, fooling us into thinking we’re not good enough just as we are,” says psychologist Patricia E. Zurita Ona. “And these feelings of unworthiness can also exacerbate other challenging emotions we grapple with during the holidays — like family frustrations, self-doubt, and even lingering grief.”
Overwhelmed with stress? Revisit your values.
Between dragging out the vacuum to clean the house for visitors, grocery shopping, dropping off canned goods at the food pantry, and volunteering at your grandson’s school holiday feast, your cornucopia of chores runneth over and your stress is becoming suffocating.
To go from feeling frazzled to festive, focus on what you hold most dear. Instead of checking off your endless to-do list, focus on three core values, such as family, spirituality, and gratitude, advises Taitz. Ask yourself how you can honor each one. Answering this question broadens your perspective and shrinks panic and perfectionism. For example, you might skip the elaborate place settings and instead share a simple blessing before dinner. Says Taitz, “Not only will doing less calm you, but sweet family moments remind you what matters.”
Think back on holidays past, when not everything was ideal but still turned out great, like the time Uncle Bob forgot to bring the pumpkin pie. This relieves pressure and helps you set better boundaries.
Frustrated with family? Befriend the moment.
As soon as your mother says the mashed potatoes could use more salt, you instantly feel judged. “When families get together, old hurts often resurface,” says life coach Andrea Scher, author of Wonder Seeker. “If your reaction seems disproportionate, it’s probably hurts of the past mixing with the stress you’re under now.”
Instead of replaying slights, come back to the moment, urges Scher. Lighthearted activities, like asking each family member a creative question, such as: “Which song best describes your personality?” are easy ways to stay in the moment.
If frustration is hard to tamp down, ask yourself: What do I have the power to change right now? suggests Zurita Ona. That could simply mean changing the subject of the conversation or stepping out to grab some air. A grounding question like this remind us that even if family makes us feel criticized at times, we can remain in control.
Beating yourself up? Quiet your inner critic.
Despite your Herculean efforts, the ham comes out a bit dry this year. I failed, you berate yourself, as you convince yourself that everyone at the holiday table agrees with your inner critic. When caught in a web of self-blame, it’s easy to assume others are thinking the worst of you, says Scher. It’s important to remember, however, that the story you tell yourself is not how they see you.
Quieting self-judgment starts with challenging your inner critic. When unfair storylines say you’re not living up to your own expectations, try gathering evidence by asking, What information do I have that makes this story true? advises Scher. You’ll quickly discover that thoughts are not facts, and there is no reason for self-doubt. “When my shame spiral starts, I ask myself two questions: What story are you telling yourself right now? and What’s an alternative narrative?” she says. This self-inquiry lets you see that your inner critic isn’t the truth-teller you thought she was, helping you to stop the shame spiral and lean into joy.
Grappling with grief? Practice loving-kindness.
The holidays are a bittersweet time, throwing a spotlight on lingering heartache. Missing the loved ones, moments, and milestones you’ve lost in the past couple of years, you can’t move past what “should’ve been.” Well-meaning friends suggest to “look on the bright side,” but because you feel stuck, gratitude and positivity are hard to summon.
One way to cope with grief is to treat yourself with compassion, says Zurita Ona. Start by comforting yourself like you would a dear friend, reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can. Indeed, reciting words of loving-kindness, such as, “It’s okay to feel sad, may you love yourself just as you are,” helps soothe heartbreak, adds Scher, who recommends putting your hand on your heart as you repeat this mantra. “Staying true to our feelings is the ultimate way to show ourselves kindness,” she says. “Take a moment to share what you’re grieving. Acknowledging our pain, especially with loved ones, helps heal trauma and bring us closer, turning hardship into resilience and dread into hope.”
These tips will help put holiday stress in its place — and let you enjoy the season to the fullest!
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First for Women.