Top 7 Ways to Combat Holiday Stress


For many, the holidays are filled with never-ending to-to lists, visits from difficult relatives and the obligations of securing thoughtful (and pricey) holiday gifts, which is why stress levels increase over the holidays.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your anxiety and truly enjoy the holidays this year. Ready to beat your holiday stress? This article will walk you through the details.

What Triggers Holiday Stress?

There are sky-high expectations to make this winter season perfect, and few people can live up to the example set by Hallmark. What’s far more realistic is that this planning and prepping leaves many of us anxious, irritable, and even depressed.

Some people struggle with feeling stress-free over the holidays more than others. They can be a difficult time for anyone who fits these qualifications.

  • Associates the holidays with painful family problems
  • Is facing the loss of a loved one
  • Puts unrealistic expectations on friends and family
  • Suffers feelings of isolation from others
  • Is coping with unmet expectations over the year
  • Turns to excessive drinking to ward off negative feelings

If these problems seem familiar, you’re far from unique. The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that half of American women experience higher stress levels during the holidays and that 41% turn to food and 28% to alcohol to cope with it. Self-medicating in these ways will only help you feel better for the short term, so if you want to reduce your holiday stress permanently, you should focus on following these tips.

Top 7 Ways to Combat Holiday Stress

Are you tired of battling your anxiety every December? Follow one or more of these seven tips, and you’ll soon find yourself more relaxed and engaged as the holidays arrive.

1. Take Regular Breathing Breaks

The chaos of the holidays can make it feel as if you never cross anything off your list. To reduce your stress, you need to repeatedly take time to remind yourself what’s most important and press “pause” on everything else that gets in the way.

One of the best ways to maintain your perspective is to take regular ‘breathing breaks’ throughout the day. These moments are meant to be intention times where you pull yourself away from the seemingly overwhelming tasks in front of you and take some time to think through everything that’s going well and everything you need to maintain gratitude for.

An effective breathing break is the 4-7-8 method. Start by exhaling deeply, and then inhale through your nose for four counts. Hold your breath as you count to seven, then release it slowly as you count back to eight. Repeat this pattern at least three times when you’re hit with a wave of anxiety, and it should work to calm you down.

Just five to fifteen minutes of intentional re-centering during the holiday season will dramatically reduce your stress levels and help you keep your emotions in check.

2. Let Go of Gifting Pressure

Christmas commercialism puts tremendous pressure on sourcing the perfect (and often pricey) gift for everyone on your list. You can eliminate a lot of holiday stress this year by removing that responsibility from your shoulders. Be upfront with those you care about that exchanging presents isn’t a priority for you this year, and the chances are good that they’ll feel relieved as well.

Likewise, it’s smart to strip other holiday responsibilities from your list, like baking perfect holiday treats, keeping the home immaculately clean and decorated, and acting as the perfect hostess for every party. Obsessing about these details won’t result in a better holiday experience, so focus your energy instead on enjoying the relationships you care about.

If you want to spread the joy of less stress to those around you, consider gifting massages! Studies show that receiving regular massages can reduce anxiety as well as your risk of developing health problems.

3. Be Open to Developing New Traditions

False nostalgia can make us want to have our holidays look a certain way that is both unrealistic and unwanted for many of us. Don’t let yourself become a slave to tradition, and instead strive to set up your holiday season based on what matters for you. There’s no reason why one year’s celebration needs to look like last years, and brand new traditions can begin each year. As your family grows and changes, talk together about what traditions you care about, and which ones can be dropped. This helps prevent you from going overboard and getting too overwhelmed in the details to enjoy what’s happening right now.

One holiday tradition that might need to get dropped off the list? Hosting a holiday dinner in a relative’s home. Your whole family can eliminate the stress of prepping and cleaning up (and ease many interpersonal tensions) by moving the meal to a local restaurant instead. The difficult work is done for you, and restaurant environments naturally limit loud voices and angry discussions, which might make for a happier holiday for everyone.

4. Make a Budget (and Stick To It)

Christmas’s commercialism puts pressure on us to spend, but those January credit card bills will quickly make any lingering holiday cheer disappear. A 2015 Gallop study showed that Americans planned to spend an estimated $830 on gifts over the holiday, not counting food and decoration expenses. You can keep things comfortable financially by developing a budget beforehand and sticking with it, even if it means dropping a few luxuries from your list.

If you’re struggling to stop swiping your card, consider pulling out a predetermined amount of cash for buying gifts instead. You can also convince friends and family to participate in a used gift swap or set a $20 cap on each present. Another option is gifting services (such as lawn care or babysitting) instead of a physical gift for those you care about.

5. Keep Up Your Exercise Routine

Shorter days and chilly weather paired with parties filled with indulgent foods mean that many of us slack on our exercise routine during the holiday season. This is a recipe for health problems, as the chaos of the holidays is when you most need structure in your life. Getting in regular workouts will boost your fitness, elevate your mood, and reduce overall anger, tension, confusion, and fatigue.

As a bonus, a workout releases serotonin into your bloodstream, which helps you fight the effects of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and maintain a positive mood despite the chilly weather.

Don’t assume you can take a few weeks off your workout routine during the holidays without consequences. Research from the University of Adelaide shows that regular exercisers who take time off begin to feel depressed and fatigued within just three days of quitting.

For the best results, bring your workout outside or at least in a sunny location. You’ll even benefit from a taking a walk, as an easy cadence produces a tranquilizing effect on your brain that decreases your overall anxiety and improves sleep. A brisk thirty-minute walk can improve your mood for the next twelve hours, so make it a priority to carve out time over the holidays to maintain your fitness.

6. Power Up with Potent Foods

The holidays might be renowned for their opportunities for indulgence, but your stress levels will respond best to keeping a few key foods in your diet. Citrus fragrances are especially known for boosting your mood, thanks to the presence of norepinephrine, a hormone that can improve your feeling of well-being. You can get the benefits from eating fresh fruit or by using an essential oil diffuser to diffuse lemon or orange essential oil into the air.

Another proven holiday pick-me-up? Honey. A little taste of sweetness can lighten anyone’s mood, and research shows that it’s full of antioxidant and antibacterial properties that can promote immune functioning. For best benefits, use the darkest honey you can find. You can also boost your endorphin production (the natural compounds that trigger feelings of euphoria) by feasting on spicy foods over the holidays. Finally, indulging in sweet fruits like mangos can alter your blood chemistry in ways that boost feelings of contentment and fight off depression.

7. Get Help (and Help Others) When Necessary

As the holidays approach, it’s all too easy to get caught in the mindset that you need to complete every task on your own. Not only is this an impossible goal, but it’s a recipe for stress and seasonal depression. This year, practice asking for what you need by soliciting the help of friends and relatives and delegating responsibilities between them. Maybe the host of this year’s family party shouldn’t be responsible for either the setup or cleaning and everyone can commit to bringing a dish to share. For the best response rate, ask others personally if they can chip in, rather than sending out group messages. Mass requests are easier for recipients to ignore as they are more likely to assume someone else will pick up the slack.

To boost your mood further, take the time to volunteer and help out others. You’ll get a boost of feel-good emotions from the process, and it will also help you put your stresses into perspective by seeing how realistically they can be solved.

Have a Stress-Free Holiday Season This Year

The holidays are meant to be a time of rest and recharging after the chaos of the year, NOT an opportunity to add more stress to your life. Take the time to put these seven strategies into practice, and you’ll lower your anxiety this winter and enjoy the benefits that come from being more fully present. That’s a happier holiday season for everyone.