9 Steps for Reducing Stress this Holiday Season

-Julia Lehrman, LCSW, RYT

December is officially upon us. With the holiday season in full swing, we are more likely to encounter the unforeseen travel delays, frustratingly long lines, and triggering interpersonal interactions that tend to be commonplace this time of year. These situations can push our buttons and test our limits. Here are some strategies to use when you feel like your patience is running low.

1) Realize that some things are out of your control
This can be tough, but the sooner this recognition occurs, the better. We cannot control the weather, the traffic, or the actions of other people. When we fight against what is out of our control, we often end up feeling more miserable and stressed out. Instead of stressing about what you cannot change, give yourself permission to let go of the struggle and move forward.

2) Realize that some things are in your control
Hooray! While it is not always easy, we do have the power to control our actions and reactions. We also have the ability to influence our state of consciousness (see #4), mental processes (see #5), and physiological responses (see #6). By effectively drawing upon your own personal resources, you allow yourself the opportunity to regain control and feel more at ease. By focusing on what you can control, you become not only less stressed, but more empowered.

3) Learn to surrender and accept
Instead of resisting against the things that are out of our control, we can choose to surrender. There is absolutely no connotation of weakness or defeat by choosing this route. To surrender is to find acceptance for that which we cannot change. When we release resistance and welcome acceptance, we actively reduce our own suffering. Finding acceptance helps decrease stress and other difficult emotions while simultaneously increasing feelings of liberation. By learning to surrender, you actually win.

4) Be mindful
Pause for a moment. Discern what is happening inside of you right now. Try to observe your internal experience, just as it is, without judgment. See if you can be an objective witness to your own inner-workings. Encourage yourself to become more conscious of what is transpiring within you. From there, you can more clearly see what is happening around you. Being mindful is a way to lessen the gap between the stressed-out version of yourself and who you are when functioning at your optimum level. Practicing mindfulness brings you one step closer to becoming the best version of yourself.

5) Take charge of your thoughts
Although sometimes it might not seem like it, we are in control of our thoughts. The goal is not to ignore or deny the thoughts, but rather to clearly see them, acknowledge them, and then transform them. Try to honestly type out your thoughts or write them in a journal. Once you identify your thought patterns, you are better equipped to change your thinking from negative to positive. Since our thoughts so greatly impact our emotions and behaviors, this shift can play a crucial role in decreasing stress and the actions that accompany it. As the saying goes, “what you think, you become”.

6) Use your breath
Your breath is a tool that you always have with you. It is there for you no matter where you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what is going on around you. Your breath connects your mind and body and it can be your greatest ally in dissipating stress. As you breathe in, think of the word “inhale” and as you breathe out, think of the word “exhale”. Continue to silently and steadily label your inhales and exhales until you find a steady rhythm in your breathing. Keep focusing on your breath to calm your nervous system and stay present. Like icicles melting outside, watch your stress slowly start to disappear.

7) Look on the bright side
Again, this can be challenging, but also entirely doable. See if you can focus on the positive or find the silver lining in frustrating and stressful situations. Try to think of something you are grateful for, rather than automatically honing in on the negative or what is going wrong. Gratitude has been shown to help reduce negative emotions such as stress and improve connection to the self and others. Also, sometimes the most disastrous seeming situations are the ones that actually end up turning out the best. Open yourself up to all the possibilities.

8) Take care of yourself
Self-care is a potent remedy for stress and a main ingredient in our overall well-being. Often, the more stressed we become, the less we take care of ourselves. Although it may take time, self-care is time well-invested and can prevent burn out. You might try exercising, taking a shower or bath, drinking herbal tea, eating a balanced and healthy meal, resting/ getting a good night of sleep, going for a massage or manicure/pedicure or engaging in any other relaxing activity that brings you peace. It is impossible to pour from an empty cup, so try to replenish yours as much as possible with healthy amounts of self-care.

9) Try not to compare
Relinquish the temptation to compare yourself to others. Whether on social media or in person, comparing can lead to distorted perceptions and feelings of stress. Notice if comparing is a habitual or automatic response for you. Rather than operating from a scarcity mindset, aim to cultivate an attitude of joyful abundance. Believe that you already possess all the qualities necessary to attract happiness and success. Sometimes it is just a matter of unveiling and embracing those attributes that may be cloaked in fear or self-doubt. Sprinkle in a word or two of kindness and provide yourself a calming elixir to soothe holiday stress away.

We all experience stress to varying degrees. Some situations and exchanges can be more provoking than others. Mindfulness techniques such as the ones described in the steps above have an infinite number of potential applications for counteracting stress and other types of emotional distress. Try using these tactics in various situations in your daily life and see what happens.

Therapy is a great place to process the causes and effects of stress beyond the holiday season. With the new year around the corner, now is as good a time as any to get a head start on your goals for 2017. If you are curious about learning more or want to explore ways to utilize these skills on a regular basis, contact me today!

6 Ways to Anticipate and Defuse Holiday Stress

-Peg Streep

The Halloween candy is marked down and the candy canes, keepsake ornaments, and all manner of Christmas paraphernalia, along with chocolate turkeys and Pilgrim hats, already line the shelves of my local drugstore. It’s not going to be long until the incessant bleat of canned Christmas carols fills the interior of every shop. For many whose childhood experiences of family were painful and filled with loss, the beginning of November signals a darkening of the horizon, with a long stretch of holiday time to get through.

The holidays are hard for many because we are bombarded with images of families who are content and loving, and we are reminded with special poignancy of what we missed as children and continue to as adults. The Norman Rockwell images of family gathering around the table, of people happy to see each other and close in each other’s company, remains painfully elusive.

But there are strategies you can adapt to make the holidays easier, whether you maintain contact with your original family or not. We often unwittingly collude in making the holidays more difficult than they need to be by adhering to the code of silence unloved daughters and sons feel compelled to honor—telling the world at large that we’re so looking forward to the holidays and the like— adding the burden of pretense to what’s already an emotional time of year. With our own families, we can become so focused on making everything perfect—in opposition to how we remember our own childhoods—that we manage to create stress.

There are ways, though, to make the season emotionally and psychologically easier.

1.Define your expectations

Making sure that you’re being realistic is an important first step, whether your contact with extended family is limited or more involved. Don’t let the needy, ever-hopeful child in you run the show because you’re bound to be disappointed. Holiday imagery aside, people don’t change because it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. Often we unconsciously set ourselves up for disappointment so bring your thoughts and expectations to the surface, remembering that the holidays make everyone feel needy at some level. Even relatively happy families often experience stress and discord this time of year.

2.Set boundaries and limits

Just because the holidays are here doesn’t mean you have to say “yes” to everything nor do you have to do your utmost to keep the peace at all costs. No one has appointed you the peacemaker and you should keep that in mind. If you’re seeing your parents or siblings, there’s no requirement that you have to step back into your childhood role. Anticipate the family dynamics and decide ahead of time how you’ll deal with situations should they come up, using “if/then” thinking. (“If Mom starts picking on me or criticizing me, I’ll simply leave the room. I don’t have to engage.”) Figuring out ahead of time what you are willing to do and what you’re not is key.

3. Know what you’re feeling

If you’re in an emotional valley going into the holiday season or on an emotional peak will factor into how well you fare so it’s important to get a bead on where you find yourself so you don’t unwittingly set up an internal ping-pong game of emotions. If you’re already struggling, keep your plans as simple as possible and don’t overextend yourself. If you’re feeling good, stay focused on that and don’t let the holiday tsunami take you down. For more, see #6.

4. Recognize that gift-giving is symbolic

While the tradition of gifts is supposed to be fun, many people find it yet another thing to dread. Sometimes, it comes down to finances but it’s rarely about money alone because gifts become yet another symbolic arena for the expression of tension and disappointment. Recognize the types of gift-givers in your circle. There are those angels who choose presents with you in mind and they make the holiday wonderful. And if you’re one of those people, you’re a treasure too. But there are also the show-offs whose gifts—usually expensive—are just reflective surfaces to display how terrific they are. There are the competitive gift-givers whose main goal is to win and who like nothing better than to show how your gifts are lacking. There are the complainers whose gift is always handed over with a long story of travail and who want you to acknowledge the terrible burden you placed on them…Stay on the high road and ignore those yucky types. If necessary, read or re-read O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi to remind yourself what this is supposed to be about.

5. Devise creative solutions

When I was in my twenties and estranged from my family, I used to throw parties for those who had nowhere to go on the holidays. The Millennials have actually institutionalized this practice with “Friendsgiving” gatherings and you can too. Family can be defined and redefined any way you like and there’s no reason to be bound by tradition. There are lots of ways to feel joyful in the season: do a potluck dinner to decorate a tree, have folks over to wrap small gifts for children in need, volunteer at a shelter with friends and then go for drinks after. Norman Rockwell, after all, is so last last century.

6. Subtract your blessings

I know you’re thinking that the word subtract is a typo because everyone always tells you to count your blessings, right? Well, the adage turns out to be not nearly as effective as subtracting as one clever experiment found. Remember the scene in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life when Clarence the angel tries to dissuade George Bailey from killing himself by showing what would have happened to everyone he cares about if he’d never been born? Well, taking a leaf out of what they called the George Bailey playbook, researchers wondered what would happen if people focused on what their lives would be like without the good things and people. Guess what? People were actually happier.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t admit your childhood or adult losses; it’s fine to mourn them. But letting the present define you, rather than the past, is really what you need to aim for.

How we weather the holiday seasons depends, in part, on how we manage our feelings of loss. Acknowledging that loss while allowing ourselves to feel the joy in the moment makes it all a bit easier.