When the holidays don’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year: Tips for keeping holiday stress at bay

Isn’t the holiday season glorious? Magazines, television movies and marketing gurus tell you it’s supposed to be the most magical time of year. But what if you’re experience is different? I know first hand how the holiday season can feel stressful and miserable, rather than joyful and fun. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or other holidays, this rings true for many of us.

When I was a child, I remember watching my mother at Christmas time. My mother battled overworking herself year round, but the holidays were her thing. She went all out, creating a magical experience for me and my family. She hand-made gifts, crafted gorgeous wreaths, spent hours making the tree (which she had to hand make, since pine trees don’t grow in Australia), baking endless intricate European cookies, and putting on an amazing feast for Christmas dinner, despite the 30-minute ferry ride it took to get to a town for supplies. This holiday frenzy was how she showed her love for us, but in the process she ran herself ragged.

Fast forward to when I became a mother, and I tried to be just like her at Christmas, Hanukkah, thinking I had to recreate her magic for my own children. The demands of putting on such a production left me sick and exhausted by Christmas Day, but I didn’t dare to admit it. After all, she made it look so easy!

The year my mother died was profoundly sad, but it also helped me put some things into perspective. I realized that I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone, and I didn’t have to celebrate the same way she always had. That year, I carried over a few of the traditions I loved, but my family created our own new traditions as well. For the first time since starting my own family, I felt great on Christmas Day! I was sad that my mother was no longer with us, but the experience created a huge “aha” moment for me. I didn’t have to do things the way she’d always done them. And neither do you. There’s no need to stay stuck in a past that isn’t working for you. Recognizing and understanding your own needs is so important to enjoying – not dreading – the holiday season.

It’s so hard to come to that understanding. Every year I have women flocking to the clinic with complaints of weight gain, exhaustion, heavy bleeding, breast lumps, depression, and out of control PMS or menopausal symptoms. Often, they’re in tears, wondering how they will make it through the season. “I don’t have time for this,” they often lament, “There’s simply too much to get done!”

Wouldn’t it be nice if it worked that way? If our bodies would wait until life slowed down a little before protesting? But, if that were the case we might never recognize that we’re doing this to ourselves. And at this time of year, that’s one of the most important lessons I can share with my clients. It doesn’t have to be this way, and there is something you can do about it.

While the physical issues I mentioned come as quite a surprise to the women who come to see me, I’m not surprised at all. These symptoms – and more – are quite common during the holidays. And I have a good idea why. Let’s look at what’s often going on at this time of year, and how the expectations we place on ourselves can have physical consequences that catch us off guard.

Holiday Stress: Where Does It Come From?

The busy season lends itself to stress, both physical and emotional. And since your body can’t tell the difference, these stressors can work against your health. Before you can take steps to alleviate the stress of the season, you have to understand the range of things that are impacting you. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in expectations and activities that we never stop to think about what it’s doing to us. And you can’t change what you aren’t aware of. Here are a few common sources of stress during the holidays:

Not letting go of past expectations

Just like I did, do you sometimes find yourself running frantically in circles, trying to make something happen in a certain way, without even knowing why? If you slow down for a moment to examine it, you might find that you are subconsciously trying to replicate past holidays exactly as they happened when you were a child. But here’s the thing – you have your own family, your own life, and it’s very unlikely that it’s exactly as your mother’s life was. Maybe she was home, and could spend hours decorating the house just so – but you work full time, and are busy shuttling children to activities, and on top of all that, you have an aging parent to care for. Or maybe your memories of how effortless it was for her simply aren’t accurate. Life in the best of times is busy, and this time of year it can quickly spin out of control.

I know how easy it is to get caught up in the story of our past – I did it for years. But the year I finally let go of those expectations was the year I truly enjoyed Christmas. And from that time on, I’ve worked each year to really pay attention to reducing stress and enjoying the season. This year, all my gifts were purchased by the end of November. I’ve had time to just sit and listen to Christmas music, watch movies on the Hallmark Channel, and truly relax during a month that used to be spent running frantically from one place to the next. My goal for next year is to have all the wrapping done by the end of November too!

This year, try asking your family how they want to celebrate (and what they can do to help make it happen), and let go of outdated expectations. You’ll be amazed at how much peace you will find when you do!

Battling depression

Joy is the word of the season, and it can feel like there’s something wrong with you if you simply don’t feel it. But instead of cozy gatherings around a fire, or joyful singalongs with friends, many women find themselves running from store to store, grocery shopping and spending long hours in the kitchen. When they put everyone else’s needs before their own, as women so often do, they end up feeling lonely, sad, and unable to relax.

This is especially true for women who have weathered a significant change in the prior year – a major illness, a death in the family, separation or divorce, and adult children leaving home for the first time. The feelings that these events trigger feel out of place when everyone around you is smiling, but trying to ignore them often makes them worse.

In addition to the pressures of the season, an estimated 10-20% of the population is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as the “winter blues.” It’s ironic, isn’t it, that at this “wonderful” time of year, sunlight is fading, and many people are already battling a change in mood.

Whether caused by specific trigger events, chronic stress, or a change in seasons, depression isn’t something to ignore. Pushing these feelings aside can cause you to turn to “quick comforts” like overeating or drinking too much alcohol, which ultimately leave you feeling lousy. Some better solutions include reaching out to loved ones for support, talking through the feelings with a doctor or therapist, reducing stress with exercise and/or meditation, and getting outside to enjoy the crisp fresh air.

Depleting your resources

A major source of holiday stress is trying to stretch your resources too thin. It might be time, money or both – you don’t have a limitless supply of either, and acting as if you do will quickly burn you out. This is why taking space to breathe and reflect on what is truly important to you is essential. Women find it so difficult to put themselves first – but we have to stop putting ourselves last!

If you fill up every moment (even if they’re things you might enjoy in quieter times) and spend every penny you have, your cortisol level is likely to stay sky high. Your adrenals feel under attack, and they pump out the cortisol to fend off the threat – even if you aren’t in any actual danger. And if cortisol stays elevated for too long, your adrenals may become exhausted trying to keep up, your insulin levels will be volatile, brain function could be impacted, and you’ll start experiencing alarming symptoms.

Skipping Exercise

Jumping through hoops to make everyone happy doesn’t count as exercise. It’s far too easy to justify skipping a workout because of a late night, or choosing to go shopping instead of to the gym, but when you forgo exercise entirely, you’re cheating yourself out of vital support for your system.

Skimping on sleep

Who has time for sleep? you might think. With so much to do and a short window of time to do it in, it’s tempting to stay up late or get up earlier to fit it all in. A friend recently told me she’s up at 4 am these days, baking cookies or wrapping gifts for one event or another. It might seem like the best solution at the time – the only way to get more hours in a day – but did you know that it only takes a couple of days of too little sleep to send your body reeling into an unhealthy cycle due to disruption of your natural circadian rhythm. You’ll find yourself staying up late, then relying on caffeine to get you up in the morning. A few hours into your day, you’ll crash, then turn to carbohydrates, sugar or more caffeine to keep you going. This “quick fix” gives you a boost of energy, so you might agree to even more activities, which keep you up late, and the cycle goes on.

Indulgences everywhere

The holiday season, for some, begins at Halloween and stretches all the way to New Year’s Day. That’s two full months – plenty of time to derail all your efforts to eat well. Remember, a holiday is one day – there’s no need to indulge for weeks on end. But it can be difficult, can’t it? Look for my newsletter next week for a more in-depth discussion about overindulging during the holidays. But in the meantime, here are a couple of things to think about.

Everywhere you go, there’s a full table of treats on display. Just remember that all those sugary, carb filled treats can wreak havoc on your metabolism, bringing on digestive trouble, extreme mood swings, increased insulin sensitivity, and weight gain. I hear about that last one all the time – women put on a few pounds during the holiday season and never get rid of it.

And it’s not just the sweet treats that are hard to avoid this time of year. Sometimes it seems like everywhere you go has a festive holiday cocktail available. While an occasional drink to celebrate is fine, it’s so easy to go overboard. And too much alcohol can derail your health very quickly. Not only can over-imbibing set you up to binge and crash repeatedly (you have a drink, feel relaxed, but then the effects wear off, so you have another), but it can also dehydrate your body and prevent your liver from functioning properly.

How Can I Avoid Letting Holiday Stress Bring Me Down?

Now that you understand where your stress might be coming from, and how it could be impacting your health, you’re probably ready to make some changes. Nobody wants to feel lousy when there’s so much celebrating to do. Some things may be unavoidable, but others are a choice – and despite what you’ve been conditioned to believe, the choice really is up to you. No one has to accept every invitation that comes their way. It’s all about priorities – and your health should certainly be at the top of the list! Let me share a few ideas that have worked for me, and other women I know, to make the holiday season more peaceful.

Let go of the past, and embrace the present

It’s time to discover how you truly want to celebrate the holidays. Have you been dragging your kids to three different holiday dinners, trying to make everyone else happy? Or baking six types of cookies every year, when you really don’t enjoy baking at all? Take the time to think about where these traditions came from, then choose the ones that are important to you and your family, not your parents or grandparents. Try writing out a list of all the events and traditions you follow, then share it with your family to determine which you want to keep, and which can go.

Speak up when you need support

Whether you’re battling serious depression or simply feeling a little blue, don’t hide it behind a mask of false joy. Reach out to trusted friends or family members if the expectations of the season are overwhelming you. If you don’t have anyone in your life who can fill this role, seek out a counselor or clergy person. Sometimes, when you’re feeling sad or disconnected, helping others can help you too. So, you might try volunteering during the holidays as a way to get more connected to your community. Just be sure you don’t agree to too much if you’re already feeling stretched to the limit.

Give yourself permission to say no

Take a look at the events and activities you are participating in – are they all true “yes” events, or did you agree to go so you wouldn’t disappoint someone else? Doing things just to appease others will rarely result in true joy – and might well raise your stress level. You can’t be two places at once, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about what you choose to do – or not to do. Remember, an invitation isn’t an order to attend.

Do you find yourself doing all the holiday tasks on your own? It’s time to say no to that as well: delegate! When you include your family and friends in necessary tasks, they see that holiday traditions are a joint effort. And asking others to help out will ease feelings of resentment and anger that might be cropping up.

Saying no opens up space to do things for yourself. Just 15 minutes a day spent on something you love can make a huge difference. Read a book, meditate, do yoga stretches or just sit quietly with a cup of herbal tea. Giving yourself permission to nurture your own spirit leaves you much better equipped to meet the needs of everyone else.

Finally, say no to the idea that you must spend a fortune for gifts to be meaningful. The best gifts are those that show the recipient that you have been paying attention to who they really are, and what they love.

Make every movement count

When you have endless errands and events to attend to, squeezing in a trip to the gym or a formal exercise class is the last thing you want to do. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop moving altogether. Try parking at the far end of the lot and walking to the store, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. And if you already exercise regularly, now isn’t the time to let that go. Exercise is a natural stress buster, as it boosts metabolism, increases endorphins, and keeps cortisol levels steady.

Prioritize sleep

I know it’s hard to duck out of a party early, or put off the rest of the wrapping until the following day, but making sure you get enough sleep will help keep your stress levels down. Optimal brain function and mood regulation happen when adults get 7-9 hours of sleep consistently. I’m not suggesting you can never have a late night, but if you know one is coming try to be in early the next night. Or simply make sure you stick to your regular bedtime whenever you are home – even if there are tasks left undone.

Pay close attention to nutrition

While the occasional holiday treat is okay, make sure you are sticking to healthier choices most of the time. Be sure to include protein and fruit or vegetables at every meal and snack. Eat consistently – overindulging one day doesn’t make skipping meals the next a good idea. If you find yourself craving carbs and sugar, remember that white flour, white sugar and processed chemical ingredients only set you up for a crazy cycle of cravings. Instead of giving in to the quick fix, try a new recipe for a healthier version of your favorite comfort foods. Avoid alcohol or sweetened beverages, and opt for water or seltzer instead. Don’t underestimate the power of a daily multivitamin to help keep you on an even keel through the holidays, and consider a targeted supplement like my Stress Ease to help get you over the stress hump.

Make This Holiday Season Your Most Wonderful Yet!

There’s no reason you can’t enjoy the holidays if you are listening to your body and tuning in to your own emotional and physical needs. If you love the traditions, and feel great while participating in them, go ahead and continue them. If you find yourself exhausted and dreading the season, it might be time to dig a little deeper and discover why.

The thing I truly love about the Holidays, isn’t the gifts, or the parties, or even spending time with family, though all of that can be great. But what I truly love is that it’s a time of year that brings out belief in and hope for the world. Peace and joy are on everyone’s mind during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true year-round? The holidays bring out the best in people. Feel-good stories are everywhere this time of year. My dream is that someday the “spirit of the holidays” will be in full swing all the time.

But that can’t happen until we all find the right balance for ourselves, and the holiday season can make that even more difficult than usual. Take a break and try a few of my suggestions to keep you healthy and happy. If you do, perhaps by Christmas Day you’ll find yourself singing along, truly believing it is the most wonderful time of the year – and extending that feeling far into the New Year too!