Ben Franklin famously quipped that nothing in life was certain except death and taxes. But holiday stress must have been a close runner up.
While I don’t have the time or stamina to diagnose why the holidays have turned into such a stress-fest, I do have a few thoughts on how to make them a little less stressful—and as a result, a little more peaceful.
None of these are easy, unfortunately. But even if you can work on one or two of them, I think you’ll find your holiday stress a bit more manageable.
1. Clarify what really matters
If you ask people what the real meaning of the holidays are, you’d probably hear things like this:
- Spending quality time with people you love
- Celebrating God’s love for mankind
- Giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives
But if you watch how people behave during the holidays, you’ll get a very different picture of what the holidays are really about:
- Buying lots of stuff
- Cooking lots of stuff
- Voicing pent up political grievances with relatives you only see once a year
There’s some kind of disconnect between our ideal vision for the holidays and what we end up doing when the time comes: We value quality time but we spend all of it hustling through crowded Targets or slaving away in the kitchen; We value giving thanks, but 90% of our energy (and paycheck) goes toward giving stuff.
What’s the deal?
Why is it that every January we tell ourselves that we’re going to focus on what really matters during the holidays. And yet, every December we end up a frazzled, exhausted ball of stress?
I don’t have all the answers, but let me suggest one possible reason why we always seem to end up losing sight of what really matters during the holidays…
If you don’t clarify your values, you won’t be able to act on them.
It’s not enough to simply remind yourself that the holidays are about spending quality time with the people we love. You have to clarify what that actually looks like and make a plan to ensure that it happens.
Sit down with a pen and paper and list out your most important values when it comes to the holidays. What are the holidays really about for you? What would your ideal holiday season actually look like?
Next, pick just one of those values (e.g. spending quality time with my kids) and write down 10 examples of what that value would actually look like in practice (e.g. Go for hike with Teddy, Get coffee with Shelley, call up James, etc.)
Now, open up your calendar and put those items into your calendar (or at least put in the action item of doing something about those items in there).
If you want to have less holiday stress this year, it’s not enough to try and avoid stressful things. You need to move toward things that are actually meaningful and enjoyable.
And to do this effectively, those values need to be crystal clear along with a specific plan to actually execute each one.
2. Let go of things you can’t control
When clients come into my office during the holidays and say they want to talk about how stressed out they are, I ask them to be specific about what parts of the holidays are stressing them out so much.
And a surprising amount of the time, the things that are stressing them out the most are things they can’t actually control.
Here’s an example I heard recently:
Thanksgiving with my husband’s family is always so stressful — his uncle always brings up politics and everyone ends up angry and irritable by the end of the night.
I mean, yes, I can see how stressful that would be. But here’s the thing: she can’t control her husband’s uncle and how his family responds to his politically-charged comments over Thanksgiving dinner.
And yet, she has spent hours and hours worrying about this and thinking about it. That’s hours of precious time and energy that — in addition to producing a lot of stress — can’t be spent making her holidays enjoyable and meaningful.
The opportunity cost of worrying about things you can’t control is that you miss out on good stuff you can control.
Think about it:
All that time worrying about how so-and-so is going to behave during Christmas dinner is time you could spend reflecting on things you’re grateful for this year.
All that energy you dump into dwelling on how unhappy the holidays make you is all energy you can’t put into making the holidays a more enjoyable season going forward.
All the effort you put into finding just the right gift for everyone in your family could have been spent having a meaningful conversation with them.
If you want to feel less stressed and more relaxed during the holidays, don’t bog yourself down with things that aren’t under your control.
3. Be okay with saying no
If I had to boil down the cause of most people’s holiday stress to one idea, it would be this:
You’re doing too much.
- Too much shopping
- Too much cooking
- Too much planning
- Too much socializing
- Too much decorating
- Too much worrying
Too much, too much, too much…
Of course, no one of those things probably feels like “too much.”
And while there are undoubtedly positive aspects of each, they can’t be considered a net positive unless you really think through the tradeoffs you’re making by saying so many yess.
A couple of examples:
You said yes to hosting Thanksgiving dinner (again!). But this also means you’re effectively saying no to being able to go to the gym that week because of all the prepping you’ll have to do.
You said yes to attending another holiday party for work. But this also means you’ll have to stay up late another night to get your Christmas present wrapping done, which means less sleep, which means more irritability and exhaustion.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do anything during the holidays.
I’m just saying that, if you habitually feel stressed out come November each year, you should probably think more carefully about the tradeoffs that go along with all your well-intentioned yess.
Okay, I get it. I need to start saying no to a few more things during the holidays… But it’s hard!
Yup, I get it. Saying no to people is painful. But here’s the thing:
Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
Just because your sister feels disappointed that you said no to hosting Christmas Eve again doesn’t mean you’ve actually done anything wrong.
Just because you feel guilty saying no to your coworker’s holiday party doesn’t make you a bad person.
Just because your spouse feels irritated that you aren’t participating in the annual family Christmas Tree safari doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to say it.
People have a hard time saying no because they assume that if anyone feels bad, then the decision must have been bad or that they’re bad for making it. But that’s not how either psychology or ethics work.
You are not responsible for how other people end up feeling because you can’t control how other people feel.
So start small and practice saying no to things that have too many tradeoffs. It won’t be easy at first. But like any other skill, if you keep practicing it will get easier.
As the wise baker knows:
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
If you’re tired of running through the same hamster wheel of stress each year during the holidays, you need to face up to the fact that, however well-intentioned — you’re doing too much.
And the only way out is to learn to be more assertive and get better at saying no.
4. Manage your stressors, not your stress
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Prevention is the best medicine.” And you probably associate it with physical health — Eat a healthy diet, for example, so you avoid heart disease in the first place.
And while this is certainly good advice, it applies to our emotional health and well-being just as much as our physical health.
Specifically, when it comes to stress, it’s better to prevent it from showing up at all than trying to manage it once it’s arrived.
But stress is inevitable… How can I possibly prevent it in the first place?
The reason most people end up letting so much stress into their lives is that they miss an important distinction between stress and stressor.
A stressor is something that triggers stress. Your stress response is how you feel after being exposed to a stressor.
Your mother guilt-tripping you about how you raise your children is a stressor. You feeling guilty and anxious is part of your stress response.
An email from your boss about a holiday party you don’t want to attend is a stressor. Your shoulders getting tense every time you open your email app is a stress response.
Having to plan, arrange, and coordinate a Christmas dinner for 40 people is a stressor. The exhaustion and irritability you feel for the week leading up to Christmas is your stress response.
Because we always hear about “stress management,” we assume that the way to deal with stress is to use coping skills like deep breathing, distraction, or drugs to make us feel less stressed.
But with a little creativity and planning, you can actually eliminate your stress at the source so that you never even get to the point of needing to manage your stress.
When you get good at managing your stressors you don’t need to do nearly as much stress management.
Of course, managing your stressors isn’t easy… usually because it requires dealing with difficult people in an assertive and straightforward way. And because many of us are afraid of conflict, we end up avoiding our stressors and just trying to manage the stress once it’s arrived.
The trouble is all the stress and anxiety these unchecked stressors lead to is usually far worse than the initial discomfort you would feel if you dealt with your stressors promptly and assertively…
Remind your mom that you don’t want any more parenting advice and be willing to hang up the call if needed.
Stop procrastinating on that holiday party email from your boss and let them know that you respectfully decline.
Send a direct but polite email to your family letting them know that you won’t be hosting Christmas this year but are happy to help whomever decides to.
Look, I’m not saying it’s easy to address all your stressors before they become stress. And I’m not saying it’s even possible to do so completely — some stress is inevitable.
But I’ll tell you what…
A lot more of your stress than you think is preventable if you’re willing to cut it off at the source and start managing your stressors assertively.
So before this holiday season arrives, try this:
Take 15–20 minutes and sit down with pen and paper and list out all the ways you tend to get stressed during the holidays.
Next, identify where the major stressors are that are leading to all that stress.
Finally, for each stressor, ask yourself this question: How could I creatively and assertively manage this stressor such that it doesn’t turn into stress in the first place?
5. Make time to be a little selfish
I know, I know… The holidays are about other people, it’s better to give than receive, the spirit of Christmas, yada yada yada…
I get it. But here’s the thing:
You can’t take care of other people if you don’t take care of yourself.
How charitable and forgiving are you going to be with obnoxious relatives if you’re stressed out and irritable from constantly putting other people’s needs before your own?
How present and grateful are you going to be if you’re sleep-deprived and exhausted?
How can you spend quality time with the people who matter most in your life if you’re busy from dawn to dusk prepping an insane holiday dinner?
Even if your only concern is the well-being of other people in your life, you need to keep your own tank reasonably full if you want to be helpful to them!
Now, being a little selfish during the holidays doesn’t have to mean anything huge and dramatic like telling your family to peace out and jetting off for a nice solo vacation in the Caribbean.
Nice as that might sound, it’s probably not realistic for most of us.
Instead, try to be intentional about a few relatively small but important things that you want to do for yourself during the holidays.
Here are a few examples:
Make exercise a priority. It’s extremely common for me to hear from my clients that one of the reasons they find the holidays so stressful is because things get so busy that they stop exercising.
Have a plan for eating well. Next to falling off the wagon with exercise, the other big cause of excess stress is people letting themselves go with food and healthy eating. The key here is not to rely on willpower. The temptation of holiday food is simply too great for mere mortal levels of self-control. Instead, come up with a specific plan that will ensure (mostly)healthy eating during the holidays.
Make time for quality socializing. Inevitably, the holidays means spending a lot of time with people you feel obligated to be around but whose company you don’t actually enjoy all that much. To counteract this stressor, build in meetings (yes, think of them as meetings for work with calendar appointments and reminders) with good friends so you’re at least getting some quality time with the people you enjoy the most.
Find some time to be alone. One reason the holidays are so exhausting for many people is the constant and relentless togetherness! Relationships and community are a beautiful thing, but most of us need some alone time. And this is often more true than ever during the holidays. So schedule some solo hikes, coffee dates with yourself, or early morning walks around town to make sure you get enough time to yourself.
It’s unfortunate that, at least in English, we don’t have a good word for the healthy kind of selfish. But just because there’s no word for it, doesn’t mean it isn’t a thing. It absolutely is! Ignore it at your holiday peril.
All You Need to Know
If you find yourself chronically stressed out by the holidays, maybe it’s time to hit the pause button, step back, and take a good long look at how you go about navigating this time of year.
I’ve gone through a handful of strategies you can use, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is this:
Be intentional about how you do the holidays.
When people get stressed about the holidays it’s because in one way or another they feel like the holidays happen to them.
If you want to be less stressed and actually enjoy the season, you have to find a way to take ownership for how you want your holiday experience to unfold.
Thanks for reading,
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Julia Volk.