Five Smart Strategies for Combating Stress During the Holidays
The holidays are life in high definition: Every bright spot—family, traditions, celebrations—glows brighter. But all that excitement can fuel major burnout. We asked experts how to sail through the month sans stress and exhaustion, and their answer was enlightening: Put yourself on your own "nice" list with these five feel-good methods.
Keep a calm, clear head.
What with #worklife, #momlife, and general #lifelife, we strive to be multitasking masters—only to feel like morons. Research shows that people who focus on two tasks make three times the mistakes of those doing one. It can also cause an IQ drop of up to 15 percent (similar to sleep deprivation). To mentally declutter, monotask. That's right, just do one thing at a time. (A radical idea, we know.) When baking from a recipe on your phone, turn off your notifications so you don't get hijacked by email or texts. If you're helping at Christmas-pageant rehearsal, silence it—or, better yet, power it down. You'll be more likely to do the task well, and with pleasure.
Another way to declutter your mind? Ask for help. "We think we have to do everything, but that's not even micromanaging—it's solo managing," says efficiency expert Tonya Dalton, author of the new book The Joy of Missing Out ($14.99, amazon.com). So have your kids address the holiday-card envelopes or press on the stamps. And don't forget—stick with what works. Remind yourself there's no need to reinvent the wheel every year. "I once had the great idea to do a Christmas Eve quesadilla bar," Dalton says. "I spent the whole night slaving over the stove, which added to my stress and frustration, when all I wanted was to make the moment special." She's since gone back to her famous make-ahead roasted-crab feast—and dives in with everyone.
Take time for yourself.
It's there for the taking, if you know where to look. Scientists call the concept "time affluence," says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University and the host of the podcast The Happiness Lab. "It's not the amount of time you have, but the amount you feel you have. It's like when you walk into a meeting, learn it's been canceled, and rejoice." To create that high for yourself, start by making a priority list. Set an intention for the season. No incense burning or bell chiming necessary—just take a few minutes to really think about what matters to you. "This will help you streamline," says Dalton. Do you want to get the whole extended family together? Is it important to give every teacher, dog walker, or coach a personalized token, or will a gift card and a sincere note suffice? Zeroing in on what is most meaningful will help you feel okay about skipping what isn't. We won't tell if the Elf stays deep on a closet shelf because the kids were such "angels" all year.
Just as important? Pick your parties. If the neighbors' glögg-feast will help you celebrate the way you want to, go. If not, don't—and resist the temptation to put it off or say maybe. Research by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert has found that people who say yes or no immediately are happier with their decision than those who waffle. Any host will appreciate the prompt and definitive answer, too. Your "so sorry, can't make it" could be the RSVP that saves him or her from rolling one more cheese log.
And in the midst of the chaos, do your best to find (or create) pockets of time to focus on anything but the holidays. Get to school pickup early and read for a few minutes, or park a few streets over from that party and call a friend before you head in. Then pull a Cinderella (poof!) when you're ready to split—a move sleep researcher Rebecca Robbins, PhD, swears by. "Everyone's always like, 'Where did Rebecca go?'" she admits. "But I know that to be at my best the next day, I need to be home at 10, and asleep by 11."
Make room for movement.
Your instinct to get-up-and-go may have gone MIA after Thanksgiving. The counterintuitive cure? Move more. "Research shows that a half hour of cardio three times a week for three months is as good as a Zoloft prescription for reducing depression symptoms," says Santos. "Yet when things get busy, exercise is often the first thing to fall off our list." That doesn't mean skipping the cookie swap to hit the gym (no one likes a grinch, no matter how toned her triceps). Instead, says Seattle nutritionist and personal trainer Aimee Gallo, "look for seasonal opportunities. Drive to the neighborhood that goes all-out with holiday lights, and park and walk around. Ice skating is a great activity, whether on a lake or in a mall." If lacing up a pair of skates is a long shot, remember that shoveling snow, lugging and trimming the tree, and making up the guest bedroom are bona fide workouts, too.
Allow yourself to make new memories.
You look forward to seeing parents and siblings all year—until they push the buttons that rewind you to your moody, broody 13-year-old self. The challenge is to shake off the pressure to have the "Best Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year's Ever!" and authentically connect with the people you love. An incredibly easy way is to take pictures for yourself—not Instagram. A 2018 New York University study found that when we snap photos for our own use, it helps us fully experience what is happening and remember it later. But when we stage pics for social media, Santos explains, "all our cognitive effort is focused on looking a particular way, and it blocks the enjoyment and the formation of memories." It's a scientific fact: That video of Grandma making the raw turkey "dance" to the grandkids' delight will live on as family lore, unlike your post of everyone posed around the burnished bird, smizing.
Practice the art of gratitude.
Feeling blessed, not stressed, can be a stretch when you're camping on the pullout in your parents' TV room. To find your bliss, start by giving back. Bake treats for a housebound neighbor or fill a child's stocking via the U.S. Postal Service's Operation Santa. The good deed will boost more than your karma: According to a 2008 study by researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia, spending money on others makes you happier than buying stuff for yourself.
Next, embrace rituals. "They're grounding and connecting," says Santos. "They let everyone know what to do and make time together fluid and enjoyable." New, old—it doesn't matter. "Research suggests they don't have to go back generations; you can just make them up," she says. Her in-laws pass around springerle cookies in the evenings. Your clan could take turns opening an Advent calendar or watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Most importantly, don't forget to take stock. Before bed, make a mental list of three good things that happened during the day. "This helps you get into a positive state of mind and fall asleep faster," says Robbins. Plus, it counteracts our natural tendency to ruminate on what went wrong and what we're anxious about. "The holidays can make us think about the things we don't have, the presents we can't buy, and the people who are no longer with us," says Santos. "But research shows that to be happy, you should focus on the things you are grateful for." And with that, we say sweet dreams to all, and to all a good night.