Don’t allow stress to sap your holiday joy

Depressed frustrated woman wrapping Christmas gift boxes, winter holiday stress concept (Photo: iStock - triocean)

Texas A&M AgriLife experts offer tips to make your holidays merrier by prioritizing, planning, mindfulness

While the holidays are a time of joy and sharing, they can also be a time of significant physical and mental stress.

Managing holiday stress requires setting priorities as well as avoiding or reducing as many stressors as possible. Texas A&M AgriLife experts have some tips to make your holidays a little merrier through prioritizing, planning and having realistic expectations.

Typical holiday stressors and demands

Holiday stressors can include strained finances, increased social obligations, ongoing or renewed family conflicts, new or added work demands, travel planning, time management and trying to meet some heightened expectations of oneself or others, said Lakshmi Mahadevan, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist in mental health and well-being in the agency’s Family and Community Health unit, Bryan-College Station.

“Additionally, the pandemic has led to or exacerbated health and safety concerns when in group settings and increased the difficulty with managing expenses due to economic downturns,” she said. “It has also maximized social isolation and loneliness, plus added the dread of being reminded of a loss by seeing an empty chair at the holiday dinner table.”

Mahadevan said financial and time stress are two major stressors during the holidays. Planning holiday budgets and sticking to limits can help reduce overspending and reduce any associated stress.

“To help alleviate financial stress, make a comprehensive list that includes gifts, shipping expenses, entertainment, additional food and drinks, travel funds and clothing for yourself and/or family,” she said. “Budget ahead and prepare for additional expenses. Be flexible to changes in plans and adjust expenses as needed.”

To avoid additional costs, she suggested using cash or a debit card, whenever possible, instead of a credit card. And if the family budget is tighter this year, you might consider involving the family in creating hand-made gifts for loved ones, providing an opportunity for you to spend quality time together and to save some money.  

“You might also consider collecting any unused gift cards of yours and using them as gifts, or allocating funds to a prepaid gift card and using that for holiday purchases,” she said.

To help with time management, Mahadevan suggested using an electronic or paper calendar to mark visits and events, blocking out separate times and dates for holiday preparations, shopping, decorating, cooking and socializing.

“You also should plan any travel well in advance, including booking flights, accommodations and any tours or activities,” she said. “And remember that disruptions are always possible, so reduce stress by deliberately adding self-care to your schedule. Periodically review your schedule and be sure to note when a task is accomplished.”

She said it is also important to avoid holiday tasks or perceived obligations that will likely cause stress.

“Learn to say ‘no,’ and prioritize your time for what truly matters to you,” she said. “The important thing is to spend quality time with family and friends and build lasting memories.”

Stress and holiday overeating

Sticking to diet, exercise and sleep routines is important for avoiding post-holiday stress or creating unhealthy habits, she said.

“Many people find themselves overeating during the holidays because busy schedules and the stress that comes along with those can lead people to overeat or eat things they normally wouldn’t eat,” said Chad Rethorst, Ph.D., a Department of Nutrition associate professor in Texas A&M’s Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture, Bryan-College Station.

Some suggestions he made included:  

  • Be mindful of what and when you eat. If you find yourself tempted to eat, ask yourself if you are really hungry or are eating for another reason. Cravings often associated with emotional states like sadness or being anxious often occur when you are not actually hungry, so it’s important to understand what’s causing those cravings.
  • Stick to your routines. Maintaining your normal sleep and exercise routines can help prepare you to deal with stress.
  • Plan ahead to make better food choices. Looking at a restaurant menu in advance and deciding what to order before you go can help you make healthy choices. Similarly, thinking about possible future scenarios may help you anticipate a stressful situation and plan to deal with it.
  • Find positive ways to deal with stress. Feeling stressed is normal, so it’s important to find ways to help yourself deal with that stress. Going for a walk, finding time to be alone or talking with a friend can help relieve stress.
Taking a stroll is a good way to get some ‘me’ time and help lower the stress that often accompanies the holiday season. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Michael Miller)
Taking a stroll is a good way to get some ‘me’ time and help lower the stress that often accompanies the holiday season. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Michael Miller)

AgriLife Extension also has tips on how to alter traditional holiday recipes to make them healthier. The agency also offers “Eating Well for Healthy Living,” an online course in which participants learn to help reduce stress through meal planning and physical activity. It also shows how to spend less and get more from the grocery store, as well as safely store and prepare foods.                        

Other tips for managing holiday stress

Miquela Smith, MPH, AgriLife Extension public health program specialist, Lubbock, said it is important to keep expectations realistic during the holidays. Smith supports AgriLife Extension’s Family and Community Health unit efforts statewide with her mental health expertise.    

“Basing expectations or experiences on what we see on social media or in the lives of others can cause stress,” Smith said. “We can cause ourselves undue pressure to create share-worthy memories rather than enjoying the time with loved ones.”

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She said it is important to focus on the positive experiences associated with the holidays and not be concerned with what other people are doing and what you might be missing.

“Something else that can help if you begin to feel overwhelmed during the holidays is recognizing what things are in your control versus what things are not,” Smith said. “This perspective can be valuable during the holidays when we are unable to keep to normal schedules and routines.”

Smith shared some additional tips and recommendations for managing holiday stress and feelings of sadness, including:

  • Acknowledge to yourself that it’s OK to feel unhappy.
  • Reach out to others for support and companionship.
  • Avoid excessive eating and drinking.
  • Incorporate regular physical activity into your holiday routine.

“Some people also reduce stress through mindfulness activities such as meditation or yoga,” Smith said. “Others may get a psychological benefit from doing something to help others during the holidays, such as volunteering to deliver meals. Try to find something to do that will make you feel more relaxed and promote your emotional well-being.”