You’re late for work, the kids missed the bus, and now you’re yelling at the dog because he ate your favorite pair of shoes. Your heart’s racing, you feel like crying and screaming. You are about to call in sick because you have last-minute gifts to buy and your office cookie exchange is tomorrow and you haven’t started baking, but you have a report due at noon.
We all have stress in our lives, especially during the holidays. Some stress is normal, even necessary. But when we feel stress getting out of hand and can no longer cope, health problems and even mental health issues can result. The daily obligations between work and home and constant demands for more of our time and energy keep us in a perpetual state of stress which can wreak havoc on our health.
Balance is the key to managing healthy levels of stress, but what can you do if you find yourself over your limit this time of year?
What Exactly is Stress?
Stress is your body’s alert system, releasing chemicals that allow us to get through any difficult or strenuous situation. It’s our body’s natural response to sudden danger or threats, real or perceived. It’s what makes us slam on the breaks if a car suddenly stops in front of us or gives us the strength to run faster in an emergency. It’s called the fight or flight response.
Stress can also be a response to good things, like the nervousness you feel getting ready for a first date, a deadline at work or getting ready for holiday company. Stress pushes us to get moving and take on the task.
Stress was historically intended for imminent dangers like being chased by wild animals or seeking cover from an avalanche. Your body is equipped to react to threats but then return to a normal state where you should remain most of the time. Our stress response system was never meant for constant stimulation by the everyday stressors we experience in our lives today.
Trying to balance home life and work and all of our commitments, especially during the holiday months when we put even more on ourselves, we continually provoke our stress response, creating chronic stress which can develop into serious health problems.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress looks and feels different for everyone. Things that stress you out may not affect someone else the same way or at all. How we react to stressors like work, traffic, and fighting with your spouse can be very different as well.
Surveys of working women have shown that they are busier than most of their male counterparts which makes some of the simple things seem more stressful to us than men. We also tend to take on more of the holiday stress like shopping, baking, and coordinating social or family events, adding to our normal stress.
Some common symptoms of stress include:
- Digestive issues (diarrhea, nausea, constipation)
- Irritability or agitation
- Trouble concentrating
- Racing thoughts
- Low energy
- Negative or pessimistic feelings
- Low Self Esteem
- Feeling overwhelmed or losing control
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling anxious or depressed
Mental health issues like anxiety disorders and major depression have common symptoms with stress but the treatments are very different. Some of these may mask other health problems. Only your physician can determine if you have a mood disorder, or whether your symptoms are stress-related, and can work with you on managing your symptoms.
Managing Your Holiday Stress Effectively
We all experience stress, both good and bad. Recognizing your stressors is the first step in managing them. Eliminate those you can and learn to manage everything else. Understand your major sources of stress, signs and symptoms when you’re becoming stressed, and have a plan for coping.
Here are 5 things you can do to relieve holiday stress and make it an enjoyable time instead of anxiety-inducing:
- Make your Expectations Realistic – We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make everything perfect for the holidays. The perfect decorations, perfect food, perfect gifts, perfect house… Give yourself a break. Don’t commit to more than you feel comfortable with. You don’t have to go to 12 holiday parties. Choose the ones where you’ll have the most fun, and politely decline the rest. Hosting the big holiday meal? Ask everyone to bring a dish. If you love baking holiday cookies, maybe instead of planning 15 different kinds, you choose your five favorites.
- Take time for yourself – It’s important to maintain some normalcy during these times and have a place to go to when you’re stressed; whether it’s the gym or the bathtub. With all the hurrying trying to finish everything you think you need to do, take a minute and slow it down. You’ll feel better and be better prepared for the next round.
- Give yourself a spending budget – Money can be a very stressful subject during this time of year. Between the extra cost of dinners and parties, holiday baking, gift buying for your family, friends, and co-workers, most of us spend way too much. Set a limit ahead of time. As for gifts, make a budget for each person and stick with it. If you keep your spending within your means, you won’t have the added stress of unmanageable credit card debt after the holidays are over.
- Go easy on the holiday merriment – Holiday parties, dinners; we tend to overindulge with the heavy food, sweets, and alcoholic beverages. But, too much of a good thing can cause more stress. Decide before you go, what your limit will be and stick to that. Remember, the extra pounds you add during the holidays will last a long time after they’re over. Make sure you get plenty of rest and exercise to counteract those extra holiday calories.
- Enjoy your family but know your limitations – The holidays are time for family and friends. But sometimes we together with those you may not usually spend time with. Think of obnoxious Uncle Louie who slaps you on the back every time you walk past and has loud opinions about everything. It’s okay to limit your time with these dear loved ones who cause you stress. Holiday work parties bring you together with co-workers you typically avoid at the lunch table.
Pick your battles. Don’t get offended at the snide remarks on your cooking skills from your mother-in-law or get sucked into work drama with co-workers at the dessert table. Instead, laugh or just walk away, and know that this will all be over in a couple of hours.
Tying it All Together
Remember that whether you’re ready or not, whether you’ve gotten everything done you think you need to for the perfect holiday, two things are for certain:
- Everything will not be perfect, and that’s okay.
- The holidays will come anyway. But before you know it, they’ll be over, and everything will return to normal.
So, don’t sweat the holidays. Do what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Fortunately, the holidays are predictable stress that you can plan for. Make the most of them. They only come once a year.
The holidays are meant to be enjoyable, but you can put too much pressure on yourself, making them stressful. And, if it gets too much, take a break. You deserve it.