12 ways to mitigate stress during the holidays

The holidays can be stressful — whether it’s gift buying, balancing party commitments or entertaining family, this time of year can put a strain on your mental health. In addition, the holidays can sometimes be a time of increased depression and anxiety. However, there are a few practical steps people can take to reduce stress during this time of the year, according to Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., a Manhattan-based psychiatrist and President and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

“We can learn to recognize holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, and combat them before they lead to a meltdown,” says Dr. Borenstein. “With a little planning and some positive actions, you can find ways to enjoy the holidays.”

Here are 12 ways to reduce your stress during the holidays:

  1. Know the holidays don’t have to be perfect. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. If, for example, your adult children can’t visit, celebrate together in other ways, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
  2. Acknowledge your feelings.If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. “It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season,” Dr. Borenstein explains.
  3. Connect with people you trust.If you feel lonely, seek out trusted friends, if possible, or attend community, religious or other social events that offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others is another good way to lift your spirits.
  4. Try simple activities that make you feel better. “Exercise, for example, is a natural antidepressant that can lift your mood by boosting endorphins—natural chemicals in the body,” says Dr. Borenstein. Exercises like running and aerobics also boost norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. “Even a casual walk can help a great deal to reset yourself,” he says.
  5. Take a breather.Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing and restores inner calm.  Examples: step outside to look at the stars; listen to soothing music; or read a book you’re interested in.
  6. Set aside family differences.Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.
  7. Stick to a budget.Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts.  Also, try alternatives, like donating to a charity in someone’s name, giving homemade gifts or starting a family gift exchange.
  8. Learn to say no.By saying yes when you should say no, you can feel resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. And if your work is unyielding during the season, try to remove something else from your agenda to give you more time for yourself.
  9. Plan ahead.Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. And make lists. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling. And ask family or friends ahead of time to help with party preparation and cleanup.
  10. Stick with healthy habits. The temptation to cope by self-medicating, binge eating or excessive drinking coincides with the party spirit of the holidays, which can exacerbate negative feelings. So try not to over-indulge. “Alcohol, for example, is a depressant and can actually increase feelings of depression, stress, anxiety, and guilt,” says Dr. Borenstein.
  11. Make realistic New Year’s resolutions.  Most people don’t keep the resolutions they’ve made the year before.  “If you make a resolution, pick something realistic and short term ­– maybe something you can handle in the month of January – a simple goal you can achieve without adding more stress to your life,” suggests Dr. Borenstein. “Life is stressful enough without contributing to it unnecessarily.”
  12. Seek professional help if you need it.Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, irritable and hopeless, unable to sleep or face routine chores. “If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional who know how to help you,” says Dr. Borenstein.