Coping strategies to help manage holiday stress


Last updated 12/4/2019 at 3:45pm | View PDF

We’re all at risk of being “overcooked” by holiday stress. Whether you’re a host or a guest, going out or staying in, spending time with others or alone, a variety of factors can impact our moods and stress levels.

What will I serve for dinner? What if I don’t get the right gift? What if I invite too many people and their flights are delayed by snow and I’m trapped in the kitchen with Aunt Judy and her many, many political opinions?

When stress levels are high, our health worsens physically and psychologically. That’s why it is so important to recognize when we’re feeling overwhelmed.

Here at the AMITA Health Center for Mental Health, we help people overcome these kinds of stressors every day. I hope you will find these helpful for dealing with holiday stress:

• Watch out for “shoulds”

Often, the source of our holiday stress is not the actual event but rather our expectations for how that event should happen or how other people should act. We might dream of living a Hallmark Channel movie, but the reality is that not every present will be met with excitement and the turkey might come out dry.

To help prevent these cognitive sinkholes, listen to what you are telling yourself. Buzzwords to watch out for include “should,” “must” and “have to.” Instead, practice using terms like “it would be nice if” or “I would prefer that,” allowing you to recognize expectations while still understanding things do not always go the way you want them to.

• ’Tis the season to be transparent

You’re not the only person who might have unrealistic expectations about the holidays. Kids can be especially vulnerable to this when it comes to gifts. If the threat of disappointment on Christmas morning is compounding your stress, transparency is the best policy.

Be open about what (and how much) your kids should expect. Help your kids write their wish list and prioritize what’s important (“If you could ask Santa for only one thing, what would it be?”). You can even turn it into a teachable moment about what it truly means to give. Have your kids pair their wish list with a “donation list” and ask them what they’d give from their list to a child in need.

• Rehearse your worst-case scenarios

When we’re in a stressful situation, it’s easy for the mind to catastrophize and jump to the worst possible outcome. Unfortunately, this kind of “all or nothing” thinking can be its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take some time beforehand to cognitively rehearse what you think your experience will be like and how you will respond if it differs. If the roast burns, order Chinese food. If there’s a delay in your Amazon delivery, find alternative gifts at a local store and return your delivery later.

• Keep your days mindful and bright

We all have people in our lives who push our buttons. Many of us dread being forced to spend time with them during the holidays. If this sounds like you, make mindfulness your best friend.

Mindfulness is the art of living in the moment. You can find many mindfulness exercises online, but I particularly like one that involves the simple power of observation. Pick an object to look at — a holiday cookie, let’s say. Focus on that cookie for a moment and do nothing else. Notice the sprinkles, frosting, shape and texture. Block everything else out and allow this moment to be about nothing else. This cognitive “time out” helps us regain our composure during stressful times.

Top Driver

Hopefully, these strategies help you manage your holiday stress. But if your stress levels are more than you can manage on your own — if you are experiencing deep depression, despair or thoughts of suicide — or if you would like to learn more about coping strategies for stress and anxiety, you might want to seek out the help of a professional.

— Rick Germann, a clinically licensed therapist, is Amita Health’s vice

president of community mental health and housing.


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