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The Holiday Stress Survival Guide

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“’Tis the season to be jolly,” so the song says.

For some, the excitement is building as the season unfolds and anticipation grows. The music, the lights, gifts, decorations, and time with family and friends all ignite a spirit of joy and merriment. And yet, for others, it is a time filled with stress and depression.

Some tend to envision the ‘perfect holiday,’ often leading to unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. Attempts to ensure everyone’s holiday happiness can easily lead to overspending on gifts, travel, food, and entertainment. Stress grows as people spend beyond their means and then worry about how to make ends meet.

The strain of shopping, baking, attending social gatherings, and preparing lavish meals can increase stress, create tension, and cause exhaustion. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. High demands, stress, lack of exercise, and overindulgence in food and drink compromise the immune system, often bringing on holiday illness.

Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict, or stress at any time, but tensions often heighten during the holidays, resulting in increased conflicts. Grief also intensifies at this time of year as many face the holidays missing loved ones.

The National Mental Health Association reports that even more people experience post-holiday let down after January 1. This can result from disappointments during the preceding months compounded with excess fatigue and stress.

If we’re not mindful of how we are approaching this season, stress will rob us of the real joy and spirit of peace that Christmas offers. So, how can we get a handle on holiday stress and depression?

Begin by setting reasonable expectations of yourself and others with goals that are manageable. Create a master to-do list that you can then break down into weekly and daily lists to avoid relying strictly on memory or losing track of tasks. Organize your time and prioritize activities, keeping in mind this is a season of celebration, not just one day. Spreading out activities over time will reduce stress and allow more time to enjoy individual experiences.

Tips from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Acknowledge your feelings. If a loved one has recently died or you aren't near your loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness or grief. It's OK now and then to take time just to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy (all the time) just because it's the holiday season.
  • Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, the church community, or area social services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or church function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your social circle. Also, enlist support for organizing holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don't have to go it alone. Don't be a martyr.
  • Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. However, understand in some cases that may no longer be possible. Perhaps your entire extended family can't gather at your house. Instead, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails, or videotapes.
  • Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.
  • Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget. If you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts, or start a family gift exchange.
  • Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends, and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That'll help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients — and you'll have time to make another pie, if the first one's a flop. Allow extra time for travel so that delays won't worsen your stress.
  • Learn to say no. Believe it or not, people will understand if you can't do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you'll avoid feeling resentful and overwhelmed. If it's really not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  • Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard. Continue to get plenty of sleep and schedule time for physical activity.
  • Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, even if it's the bathroom, for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing, and restores your calm.
  • Rethink resolutions. Resolutions can set you up for failure if they're unrealistic. Don't resolve to change your whole life to make up for past excess. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose only those resolutions that help you feel valuable and provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.
  • Forget about perfection. Holiday TV specials are filled with happy endings. But in real life, people don't usually resolve problems within an hour or two. Something always comes up. You may get stuck late at the office and miss your daughter's school play, your sister may dredge up an old argument, you may forget to put nuts in the cake, and your mother may criticize how you and your partner are raising the kids -- all in the same day. Expect and accept imperfections.
  • Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for several weeks, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. You may have depression.

What are the most important steps to de-stress your mind and lift a depressed spirit? As you move through the coming days, take time out from the activities around you to be still. Find a quiet place to calm your spirit. Let your mindset aside the to-do lists, along with the cares and concerns of your life, as you remember the primary focus of this time of celebration. Choose thoughts and actions that will anchor that purpose in your mind and heart as the season unfolds - a season of joy, of hope, of promise, of peace.

Make your way with the shepherds to kneel at the manger in wonder and worship. Join with the angels to fill the heavens with songs of celebration. Travel with the wise men to meet – for yourself – the King who was born to bring us the guiding light of God’s love.

May God’s gift of Peace fill your heart with joy and your future with hope. Merry Christmas.

Copyright © 2006 Nancy Williams. Used by permission. Article first posted to 

Mayo Clinic, a not-for-profit medical center, thoroughly diagnoses and treats complex medical problems in every specialty. More than 2,500 physicians and scientists and 42,000 allied health staff work at Mayo Clinic, which has sites in Rochester, Minn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz. Collectively, the three locations treat more than half a million people each year.

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About The Author


Nancy Williams maintains a private counseling practice in Houston, Texas, providing counseling, coaching, and consulting services to adults in a Christian setting. Nancy has a special interest in supporting women facing various life management issues, with a focus on personal growth, healing, and spiritual renewal. An experienced conference speaker, teacher, and writer, Nancy weaves together warmth, wit, and wisdom as she genuinely connects with her listeners and challenges them to live their best life. Nancy also enjoys writing an inspirational newspaper column focusing on life management