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6 Tips for Managing & Dealing With Holiday Stress

If the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year, why do you feel so stressed out?

The combination of managing family expectations, getting the perfect gift for everyone, and not blowing your holiday budget can all lead to higher-than-average stress levels. But even if you can’t enjoy a perfectly peaceful holiday season, there are steps you can take to minimize stressors, practice self-care, and support your mental health during the holidays.

What Causes Holiday Stress?

For many, the holiday season is the perfect storm of stressful events, thoughts, and feelings. The holidays can bring with them painful memories of lost loved ones, a personally or financially devastating divorce, or an argument that ended a friendship. And since the holiday season happens during the winter, some people also deal with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) on top of their usual holiday stress. Products like Sunlight Inside’s Bottled Sunshine lamp do help SAD sufferers, but they can’t solve all of the problems associated with holiday stress.

Raise your hand if any of the following ever made you feel pushed to your limit during the holiday season:

  • The Pursuit of Perfection. Many people have memories of that one year when the holidays were perfect. Everyone in their family was happy, they got all the gifts they wanted, and the food was delicious. Trying to repeat what happened in the past or striving for the perfect holiday can leave you feeling tired and blue.
  • Holiday-Related Financial Challenges. The National Retail Federation reports that the typical consumer planned to spend more than $1,000 during the 2019 holiday season. The pressure to spend, spend, spend during the holidays can make you feel stressed. And the after-effects of holiday spending, such as a hefty credit card bill in January, can make you feel bad even after the season is over.
  • Too Many Holiday Tasks. If you feel like you need to do everything during the holiday season, your well-being can suffer. You don’t have to be the one in charge of the eggnog or the class parent who makes all the holiday treats for students. Pick the responsibilities you find most important and say no to other tasks.
  • Too Many Social Events. The holidays bring with them a multitude of events, like invitations to parties, carol singing, and family gatherings. Many people feel pressure to say yes to everything, whether they’re usually a social butterfly or prefer to spend their evenings quietly at home. While spending time with friends and family can help you feel socially connected, a full schedule leaves you with little time for yourself.
  • Family Drama. What would the holidays be without family? A lot less dramatic, most likely. Whether it’s arguing with your older sibling over who’s the family favorite, getting into a fight with your uncle over politics, or just feeling pressure to have your kids behave, your family can make you feel super-stressed. The COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer to family drama.  Take deep breaths to help you de-stress when family holiday drama escalates.
  • Disrupted Schedules. If you love routine and follow the same schedule every week, dramatic changes to your agenda can contribute to holiday depression, especially if you end up getting less physical activity or eating more unhealthy foods.
  • Gift-Giving Dilemmas. Although gift-giving is meant to be a positive experience, it brings its own form of stress with it. Many people worry they’re not buying the right gifts or not giving enough. Some are unsure who to buy for or concerned they’ll overlook someone. Gift-giving also leads to holiday-related financial stress.

Symptoms of Holiday Stress

How do you know when you’re feeling the pressure from the holiday season? Your body is more than happy to tell you. Some of the more common symptoms of stress are:

  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of depression
  • Chest pain or other unexplained pain throughout the body
  • Digestive difficulties
  • Cold, sweaty palms
  • Appetite changes
  • Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth

When you’re feeling maxed out because of holiday drama, you won’t necessarily feel every single symptom related to stress. You’ll likely notice one or a few symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or persistent headaches. Depending on how much stress you have around the holidays, even just one or two symptoms are enough to disrupt your life.

How to Beat Stress During the Holiday Season

Stress is a drag, but it doesn’t have to ruin your holidays. While you can’t call a stop to the season, you can take some steps to help yourself feel better.

1. Learn to Say No

Whether it’s way too many party invitations, requests from your kids’ school to make 100 tree-shaped holiday cookies by 8am tomorrow, or the co-worker who wants you to chip in another $25 for the boss’s gift, the holidays can get overwhelming. The season is an excellent time to practice setting boundaries and learn to say no to things you don’t want to do or that would put an unnecessary burden on you.

For example, if the class parent expects you to bring in homemade cookies, and you just don’t have time to bake them, ask if you can bring in store-bought cookies instead. You can also politely decline their request, especially if you’re feeling overextended.

As far as holiday parties and events go, set limits for yourself. If you’re only comfortable with going to one activity each week, that’s fine. Choose the party or program that most interests you or that’s most important and RSVP yes to it. Everything else gets a polite “regrets” response.

Saying no to co-workers during the holidays is a little tricky, as you don’t want to look like the office Scrooge or Grinch. Try calling a quick meeting to get a feel for everyone’s thoughts on gift exchanges or other holiday events at the office. It’s likely the case your colleagues are happy to skip the white elephant this year or to have a simpler party if it means less stress and less work for them.

2. Create a Holiday Budget

If you’ve woken up on too many New Year’s Days with a holiday spending hangover, one solution to your financial stress is to make a holiday budget. Take a look at your regular budget (if you haven’t created one, start today with Tiller or Personal Capital) to see what you have to work with in terms of disposable income, if any. If you’ve been saving throughout the year to get ready for the winter holidays, take a look at what’s in your savings account.

Once you know what your numbers are, base your budget on them. For example, if you have $1,000 to spend, that $1,000 is your upper limit.

The next step is to set a maximum amount for each gift you plan to give or for each gift recipient and to plan out what you’ll be spending on decorations, drinks, and food.

3. Get Real About Gift-Giving

Trying to buy gifts for everyone on your list takes a lot of time and can make you feel anxious.

The thing about holiday gifts is that pretty much everyone feels the same anxiety over them. Your friends and family are probably spending as much time as you are worrying about what to give you or stressing that their gifts won’t be good enough.

Instead of silently stressing, have an honest conversation with your loved ones about the family gift-giving process. There are plenty of ways you can work together to make it less burdensome and minimize this common source of holiday stress. For example, you can:

  • Agree to Give Gifts to Kids Only. A few years ago, my siblings and I agreed we wouldn’t exchange gifts anymore, but we would still buy gifts for our nephews and kids. Kids are a lot easier to shop for and please when it comes to presents.
  • Donate to Charity Together. The holiday season is meant to be a time of generosity. One way to highlight that is by choosing a charity to donate to with your family and friends. Make your donations in honor of someone you all know or miss or just rest content in the knowledge you’re helping others.
  • Hold a Secret Santa. If you don’t want to cut out gifts entirely this holiday season, you can scale back considerably by choosing to do a secret Santa exchange. Have everyone who’s participating write their name and one or two items they’d like on a slip of paper. Put the paper in a hat and have each person choose one.
  • Set a Strict Price Limit. Whether you’re buying a gift for a secret Santa or getting presents for your children or nephews and nieces, give yourself a limit. Something like a maximum of $25 or $50 is often ideal.
  • Skip the Gift Wrap. It’s not just buying the gifts that’s stressful. It’s finding time to wrap them too. Skip the gift wrap to cut down on stress and save some resources. If you don’t think it’s a gift without gift wrap, see if the store offers wrapping as a free or added-cost service.

4. Make a Plan

Although it’s common for the holiday season to screw up your schedule, it doesn’t have to. At the start of the season, put together a plan for the upcoming weeks so you can stick to your usual habits and activities as much as possible.

For example, if you usually wake up and take a walk first thing in the morning, pencil your daily walk into your schedule throughout December so you’ll be more likely to take it. If you’re traveling for the holidays, let your hosts know you enjoy a morning walk and that you hope to take one every day or so. Perhaps they’ll even join you.

Another part of making a plan is making a list of everything you need to do between now and the end of the holiday season. Look at your to-do list and your schedule for the next few weeks and choose times when you can accomplish various tasks. Use a few hours on a Friday evening to knock out holiday gift shopping, for instance. Or take some time on a Saturday morning to tackle holiday baking.

5. Carve Out Some “Me Time”

Don’t forget to do the things you love most during the busy holiday season. Just as you want to plan for exercise or tasks, it’s essential to plan to do the things that make you feel better.

Your “me time” can take many forms, from visiting your salon for a haircut to taking a long bath. It can also involve sitting at home with a cup of tea, catching up on your favorite TV show, or reading a book.

Even if you can’t get a full evening to yourself, finding 10 or 15 minutes to be alone and center yourself can help you feel better this holiday season.

6. Make a Pact With Your Family

If the holidays are synonymous with drama in your family, it might be time to call a truce. Your uncle isn’t going to convince you his views are right, and you’re definitely not going to convince him his views are rubbish in the limited time you have together. So decide to agree to disagree this holiday season.

It also helps to have a list of topics you won’t discuss over holiday meals or at other family functions. My family is pretty much all over the spectrum when it comes to political and religious views. We also have something called the “banned list,” which include things that just don’t get talked about at the dinner table. It even includes family gossip people got tired of rehashing every time we got together. Your list can consist of whatever you want or whatever topics are a point of contention among your family members. This way, your family can avoid political arguments and debates over religion that can ruin the festive mood.

Then, if the conversation veers toward a topic that puts everyone on edge, call a timeout. Remind your family you’re all there to celebrate each other and the love you have and that it isn’t the time or place to talk about controversial things.

In the time of COVID-19, consider setting ground rules when it comes to what behaviors and topics of discussion are appropriate. Ask people to get on the same page about safety and precautions to avoid the risk of fighting and to protect people’s health. For example, you might decide to limit attendance at family celebrations to those in your immediate family or to those who live in the same area, rather than inviting people from out of town.

Final Word

We’ve all come to expect the holidays to be a time of stress and distress. But they don’t have to be. Remember, the point of the season is to enjoy time with the ones you love, celebrate religious or family traditions, and welcome the start of a new year gracefully.

Putting your needs first and communicating openly and honestly with your friends, family, and co-workers will help you put together a holiday season that’s as relaxed as it can be. When you all agree to skip or cut back on gifts or avoid topics that stir up angry feelings, you’re likely to find the holidays really are a time of peace and goodwill.

Do you find the holidays stressful? What do you do to relax during the season?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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