The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but the truth is that many of us end up missing the fun because we’re too stressed out. Tight finances, loneliness, grief, family struggles and other difficult situations can trigger a case of the holiday blues.
The American Psychology Association reports that while most of us do feel in higher spirits around the holidays, we are also more vulnerable to fatigue, irritability and sadness.
There are plenty of articles floating around about how to reduce stress, so I asked real people who have the holidays figured out to share their stories. Here is what I learned.
Balance Your Commitments
Sarah likes spending time with her family at Christmas, but dreads the long drive across three states.
“Getting ready for the trip and recovering from the trip always left me exhausted for most of December,” she says. “Last year, I shortened my family visit by two days and took three additional days off of work that I kept all to myself.
Everyone assumed I was still out of town, so I had no social obligations. It was the best Christmas I’ve had in a long time.”
Sarah’s advice is to make a list of all the holiday-related activities ahead of you and plan something enjoyable to offset it.
Identify the Problem
Paula always dreaded the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas because she inevitably gained back the weight she had worked hard the rest of the year to lose.
She broke the cycle last year by allowing herself to bake one batch of Christmas cookies a week, then stuck to her healthy eating plan the rest of the time.
“Friday nights were cookie nights,” she says. “We had fun deciding which cookies we were going to bake, and we savored them all weekend without guilt. I had no problem avoiding the rest of the holiday goodies because I had my cookies to look forward to. I gained 3 pounds in December and easily lost it by the second week of January. Problem solved.”
Paula advises that if the holidays stress you out, figure out the problem and create a strategy to manage it.
Eliminate Gift Guilt
“My parents have everything,” William says. “If they want something, they buy it. I used to start worrying about what to get them for Christmas in October. Last year, I’d been working hard to cut down on the amount of ‘stuff’ I accumulate. I was also making an effort to spend my money at local small businesses. When it came time to buy gifts, it felt like a violation of my values to buy a bunch of gadgets online.
Instead, I went to a local art and maker boutique and did all of my shopping there. I had a great time. The staff even got in on the fun. Everyone on my list got something totally unexpected and handmade. They loved it.”
William says eliminating infinite choices and letting himself off the hook to choose the perfect gifts made Christmas shopping enjoyable for the first time in his life.
Skip it Sometimes
“My mom passed away last year, and I just didn’t have the energy to manufacture the Christmas spirit,” Georgia says. “I gave myself permission to skip Christmas entirely, and I almost did. Then, around the 20th, I decided to put up a Christmas tree. I got out all the ornaments my mom had made and baked her favorite dessert. I got such a healing boost from it that I had a small impromptu party on Christmas Eve. Someone gave me a great book as a gift, and I enjoyed reading all Christmas Day. It wasn’t the holiday I wanted, necessarily, but it was the holiday I needed.”
Georgia’s advice is that it’s OK to take a break some years. Pretending to feel happy—or being around others that aren’t in your situation—can make you feel even worse.
Declare a Cease Fire
“I love my family, but I have a few relatives who like to stir the pot,” Macy says. “I always felt like I had a duty to stand up for myself or to defend my position whenever they started in at family gatherings. About three years ago, I declared a personal cease fire for November and December. If someone says something that pushes my buttons, I walk away. I also stay off social media during the holidays because it seems like everyone is either stressed out or trying to demonstrate how perfectly happy they are. It’s just too easy to get cynical or fire back a response.”
Declare Less Is More
“My parents made a huge deal about Christmas when I was growing up,” Chris says.
“There would be so many presents it was hard to walk through the living room. They couldn’t afford all of that, but it was a cultural thing. When I had kids, I found myself going down the same path. In December, I wouldn’t set a budget or even look at the credit card bill. I just wanted my kids to have a good Christmas, as my dad would say. It would take us until March to pay everything off, and it made me feel sick.
“One year, I overheard someone at work say they bought their kids four gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read. I loved the idea of that, and so did my wife. Now, instead of tearing through piles of presents in a few minutes, our kids take time unwrapping each of their four gifts. It’s so much more meaningful. We didn’t lose any of the joy, and there’s no credit card hangover.”
Regardless of the holiday you celebrate as year winds down, being mindful of what is causing stress—and being creative about how you deal with it—can help you enjoy all the best the season has to offer.
Safely Celebrate the Holidays
- Avoid potentially poisonous plants such as mistletoe, holly berries and others when children may be present.
- Ensure all lights are UL-certified and in working order.
- If using a real tree, water regularly and monitor for dryness. Keep at least 3 feet from heat sources.
- Artificial trees should be labeled as fire resistant.
- Replace broken lights right away. Follow manufacturer instructions for safe installation and daisy-chaining.
- Do not use staples, nails or tacks to hang lights.
- Turn off lights and decorations when leaving.
- Only use lights rated for their intended use.
- Wash your hands regularly when preparing holiday meals.
- Use a thermometer to ensure meats
are cooked to a safe temperature.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of being served. Leftovers are safe to eat for three to four days after the holiday meal.
- If you’re going to fry a turkey, do so outside and follow all manufacturer safety precautions.
- Ensure gifts are age-appropriate. Some toys and games have small parts that may be unsafe for young children.
- If giving riding toys—scooters, bikes, hoverboards, etc.—be sure to include or encourage the use of safety equipment such as helmets and pads.
Selected tips by the National Safety Council. For a full list of holiday safety tips, visit nsc.org.