How Do I Manage Holiday Stress?

Stress is your body’s way of telling you to pay attention. Stress can be differentiated from other experiences like anxiety by the fact that it pertains to a circumstance that’s happening right now. You can feel anxiety about going home for the holidays and all the what ifs of what’s to come. What if we fight?, or what if they don’t like my gift? and so on. However, once you’re there and in it, stress can show up (and can often exist alongside anxiety).

Everyone experiences stress, whether it be mental, physical, or emotional. Stress can show up year ’round and can be helpful and necessary in certain situations. Think about if you were giving a presentation and were so relaxed you lay down and went to sleep. Probably not where you want to be in that moment.

Aside from helpful stress, pretty much everyone experiences moments of stress that can be too much or unhelpful. The holidays can be a particularly stressful time. There can be the stress of expectations, stress of spending time with people with differences of opinions and beliefs, money stress, stress of being away from a normal routine, stress of being alone, and a multitude of other causes. What can be done about this stress aside from gritting your teeth and getting through it? Below are a few suggestions that might make the holidays not only tolerable but even open your attention up so that you can find some peace and joy.

Call It Out

The starting place of stress is to call it what it is. This might mean wading through a haze of shoulds, shouldn’ts, always, nevers to pinpoint the present. Simply speaking to the current circumstances and naming the stress is a place to start. This is where I am. I am feeling stress. What is the stress like? Where do you feel it most strongly in your body? Is there a certain urge that accompanies the stress? What thoughts come with the stress? Try to slow down for a moment and be curious about what you’re experiencing. What is stress really like?

It may seem counterintuitive but giving stress space to exist by slowing down will signal that you’re not in any immediate danger and that the stress is a feeling rather than an actual physical threat. Research shows that feelings, including stress, have a tendency to peak and then pass. This is the nature of feelings. It’s when we get wrapped up in them that feelings stick around.

Once you’ve named the stress try to identify the cause of the stress. Is it one thing or several? If there are several sources, is there one thing more than the others? Is this a situation for which you have a plan? Is the stress tied up in anxiety? Try to separate the two. In the service of what’s here now, what can be done? What plan can you come up with that’s doable to handle this situation and that’s in line with what’s important to you?

Skillful Communication

A major source of stress over the holidays can be communication. No matter how far you’ve traveled from home, how much you’ve grown, how much work you’ve done and challenges you’ve conquered, returning home can feel like you’re going back in time and into old patterns. Parts of you that you haven’t seen in a long time can step forward. This can be especially true when ways of communicating with family members or loved ones are a cause of stress.

Take a page from Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, a communication method created by Marshall Rosenberg, to successfully navigate conversations even when they’re difficult. When going into a conversation, especially a sticky or challenging one, try sticking to an order of operations: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

To give an example, let’s say you’re dreading a family interaction based on a past experience. Maybe a relative has a tendency to talk down to you or criticize you. If you can, you can plan ahead. First, what is the specific thing the person did or does? Reserve judgments and interpretations as much as you can. Imagine you’re seeing it on a screen. What are you seeing? What are you hearing? Those are your observations. Next, what feelings come up as you imagine it? Keep it simple – Anger? Sadness? Fear? Joy? Disgust? Is there a feeling beneath that feeling? What is it? Needs can be a more challenging place as you may not think about your needs on a regular basis. Give it a shot anyway. In this example, the need might be the need of respect. In request, what would you like the person to do? What concrete action can you ask of them?

Put it all together. For instance, When you yelled at me for leaving the TV on all night, I felt angry and also sad. I want to be respected when I’m here. Could we find a way to talk more respectfully to each other? It can feel scary and even awkward to talk in this way as you might be used to a very different style of communication. It takes some practice which requires putting yourself out there to give it a shot. For further reading on NVC, check out Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer or Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.

Communicating with others is one example but the holidays can also impact how we communicate with ourselves. Self-critical thoughts, negative judgments, and all kinds of unhelpful patterns can contribute to our stress and even intensify it. Luckily, NVC can be useful here as well, especially in regards to observing rather than judging. What is your present moment experience? What are you doing? What do you want to do? If you weren’t feeling this way, thinking this way, what would you do instead?

Time Out

It’s never too late to take a step away, whether it be from a heated exchange, from thought loops, or from the hustle and bustle of the holidays as a whole. Take a few minutes to physically step away when the stress gets too extreme. Physically put yourself in a place that feels safe, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Do something that calms you down like listening to soothing music, taking a warm bath, whatever brings your stress levels down under normal circumstances. Try taking slow, deep belly breaths to calm your nervous system and your threat response. Try counting your breath. Focus on the inhale, and focus on the exhale. Feel the cool air enter and warmed air exit. Notice this as if you’ve never noticed breath before. When your mind wanders, to anger, to thought loops, bring it back to the breath.

If it helps, you can even try a recorded meditation, like the self-compassion break:

What Really Matters?

Any holiday movie worth its salt will have a wise character who reminds the audience the reason for the season, whether it be connecting with those you hold dear, love, giving, or some other universal value. There’s a reason these scenes resonate with some people. We can get bogged down in the details which from a human perspective, is perfectly normal and natural. We want to buy the right thing, say the right words and we can easily lose the forest for the trees. Remembering the bigger picture, what really matters, can be especially valuable when stress sets in.

Ask yourself, what’s important about this time for you? Is it connecting with people who are important to you? Is it showing your appreciation? Is it reflecting on your year? Is it simply being still and resting? This is just you in your head thinking about this so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It matters less what others expect or what you think they expect and more so what you really appreciate and hold dear about this time. There might be specific memories you have or an image in your mind of a preferred future. What makes it worth it? What does that look like?

This can be a difficult experience and strong feelings may arise as you ponder it. This is especially true if the holidays are not necessarily a time of enjoyment or if there’s pain attached to the past. You might spend the holidays in a way that’s different than societal norms dictate or even different than you would like to spend them. Even reading something like this can feel isolating and lonely when it doesn’t feel as if it applies to you. If this is true for you, the strategies here may still be of use. These strategies aren’t applicable to only the holidays. They can be applied to a number of circumstances regardless of the time of the year. Swap out holidays for work, relationships, or anything else that might be a cause of stress. Go ahead and read through this again with that in mind. Regardless of the time of the year, what’s important to you and how might you show up with that importance in the center of your awareness?

Planning ahead can make a major difference in having these skills ready to go when they’re needed. Learning them now and applying them to your life will ensure that they’re accessible when you need them. No matter the season, remember to slow down, take a deep breath, and move towards what matters to you in your life to live life fully.

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