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Take Action on Holiday Stress

It's the "most wonderful time of the year"……for stress. The busy stores, extra-commitments, social responsibilities, pressure of finding the perfect gift or cooking the perfect meal, travel realities, decorating, making family memories, and attending (or surviving!) holiday family gatherings may leave us less joy-filled and more stress-filled.

Each year, the American Psychological Association conducts a national survey on Stress in America. The most recent study conducted indicates that while rates of stress level have declined since the annual study began in 2007, rates of stress still remain higher than what study respondents believe to be healthy.

In 2014, Americans rated their stress level as a 4.9 out of 10 – where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress. This is considerably down from 6.2 on a scale of 10 from the first study in 2007, but still higher than what Americans believe to be a healthy level of stress (identified as 3.7 out of 10). While it is good news that in general, Americans are feeling less stress, the study also asked about specific sources of stress.

The study identified the top three causes of holiday stress as lack of time, lack of money, and commercialism or hype. Daily life is busy enough – and there often are not enough hours in the day to get done what needs to be done. Add on top of that the additional responsibilities of the holiday season – cooking, cleaning, hosting, shopping – and the demands on time increase exponentially. The holiday season adds the additional stress and worry of finding enough time to get everything done. Financial stressors of the season include worrying about money and having to buy gifts. Commercialism is reported as a leading holiday stressor in that the holiday hype that is prevalent during the season often pressures individuals to buy more and more expensive gifts – which, in turn creates financial stressors as well as time concerns.

In the Stress in America study, 42% of adults reported that they are not doing enough to mange their stress while 20% say that they do not engage in an activity to help relieve or manage their stress.

While hiding under the covers or hibernating through the holiday season is not an option for most of us, establishing and following a healthy holiday action plan can decrease the stress we experience during this busy season.

As you recognize your signs and symptoms of stress increasing, it is imperative that you take action to reduce the effect holiday stress may have on you. In some cases, holiday stress can be prevented by:

Planning ahead.

"Failing to plan is planning to fail." Since we know that the holiday season will place increased demands on our time, energy, and resources, having a plan can have a positive impact on our experience with holiday stress. Setting aside specific days or times to complete holiday tasks such as baking, cleaning, or shopping is helpful. Scheduling your holiday activities out can ensure that you are not overwhelmed on any given day or time frame.

Planning ahead may also encompass planning what you will say or do at family gatherings. It is unrealistic to expect that problems or issues that you may have with other family members will disappear just because it is the holiday season. Plan to spend less time with difficult family members. Create a plan of action in how you will respond, communicate, and behave around those family members that are more difficult. Letting go of past conflicts and forgiving are also helpful. Setting aside past differences and accepting others as they are is likely to de-stress tense family situations.

Planning ahead also involves financial matters. Prior to holiday shopping for gifts or food, create a budget and (the key) stick to it! Take into consideration how much you are willing and able to spend. Avoid the commercialism trap by not equating happiness with mountains of gifts.

Saying no.

As the holiday season is busy enough, we are often approached with additional responsibilities and commitments. When and where you can, learn to just say no. If addicting an additional activity or commitment to your schedule will create additional stress, it is best to kindly decline. Oftentimes, friends and family members will understand your reason to saying no. If you are unable to say no, removing one other activity or commitment from your agenda. Delegate if you need to. Saying no is an important skill to have as it fends off feelings of resentment and over-committment that comes with saying yes.

Taking care of yourself.

Take the time to nurture yourself during this busy time. Continue to engage in healthy habits, take a break or a breather when you need it, and ensure that you have balance in your responsibilities for caring for others and caring for yourself. Making some time for your self daily – even if it is just 15 minutes – can rejuvenate and refresh you enough to take on the next holiday task. Finding an activity that reduces stress, clears your mind, slows your breathing, and gives you "alone" time is ideal. Some suggestions: meditation, taking a walk, listening to music, stargazing, being mindful/present, getting a massage, reading a book.

Adopt the attitude of "everything in moderation" and make it your daily holiday season goal. This includes eating, drinking, and spending. Overindulging in these areas can create stress and even guilt. Maintain your healthy habits to decrease your stress levels.

If your best efforts to deal with, prevent, or combat holiday stress are not working, seek professional help if you need it. Persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety, physical complaints, insomnia, and hopelessness are all matters that should be addressed with a professional.

The holiday season brings about feelings of joy and peace. It may also bring about feelings of stress and sadness. Recognizing triggers for holiday stress in order to combat them can help truly make the holiday season "the most wonderful time of the year."

Click here for a printable Healthy Holiday Action Plan.

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