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How to deal with stress this holiday season

The word stress spelled out using scrabble letters on a wooden table, with assorted other letters in the background.
Are you stressed out this holiday season?

Ever feel like the holidays aren't all they're cracked up to be when it comes to managing your stress levels? They usually promise a few weeks of friends, relaxation, and quality time with those you love, but the reality sometimes seems a little more frantic.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing and different people function optimally under different levels of stress. A little stress can be good and help you perform under pressure - it's when stressful situations aren't resolved, and stress keeps your body in a constant state of arousal, that it can take a toll on your body and your mind.

So if this year's holiday season is starting to get you down or freak you out, we've put together a short survival guide to get you feeling calm again.

Okay, to kick off: What type of stress are you feeling?

Everyone experiences stress at some stage in their life. It's a way for us to know that something in our life is causing us concern and is affecting how we are thinking and feeling. Before you start tackling your stress, take a moment to consider where your stress is coming from to make sure your efforts are being focused in the best direction for you.

External Stress

External stressors are outside forces that act upon us, usually things that aren't under your direct control. A lot of holiday stressors tend to fall into this category, particularly when the holidays bring financial worries, visits from unpleasant relatives, or a big spike in your workload leading into a holiday period. During the pandemic, you might have also found yourself feeling stressed about yourself or loved ones getting sick and whether restrictions will impact your plans.

Internal Stress

Internal stressors are self-generated, stemming from our fears, internal beliefs, uncertainty, and the feeling that things are out of control. The holidays are rife with the opportunity for creating internal stress, particularly when you find yourself comparing your holiday experience with an ideal or the experience of others. People can also place a lot of personal expectations on themselves which may be unrealistic. For example, the expectation that you must visit every relative equally.

Anxiety

Although you will likely feel anxious if you're stressed out, anxiety is a diagnosable mood disorder that frequently has no particular root cause. If you're looking for the source of your stress and can't find it - or if the stress of the holidays continues after the holidays are over - it might be worth learning more about anxiety and seeing if you exhibit any symptoms.

What type of solution is the best fit right now?

Everyone responds differently to stress, but some of the common responses include having trouble thinking clearly, low attention span, irritability, short temper, and a tendency towards poor judgement. Basically, a grab-bag of traits that mean you're not at your best, and your first response to any problem might not be the best response to the problem.

So when you consider the source of your stress, try running through the following options to give you some alternatives responses.

What can you do to remove the source of stress from your holidays?

If you're finding yourself truly stressed out this holiday, remember that you always have the option of saying no and avoiding the source of stress entirely. You don't have to engage with that family member whose presence stresses you out, and you don't have to spend money you don't have on presents or do everything on your overstuffed to-do list.

What could you do to change the situation?

When avoiding the source of stress isn't possible, it’s time to consider what you can do to change the situation or behaviour that's causing you stress. This may involve communicating your feelings in a respectful way and asking others to change their behaviour, or it could mean managing your time better, putting limits on the length of time you're willing to spend on a task or person, or asking for help with tasks that are stressing you out.

How can you change your thinking with regards to this situation?

Stress often has a way of making you feel like things are out of control or you're unable to cope. Usually this is the result of your own internal dialogue creating demands of you that have become a source of internal stress all on their own. Recognising when your own thoughts are the problem and adapting the way you think can be a useful option in your stress busting toolkit.

How can you accept that things that cannot be changed?

Wanting a solution to your current source of stress doesn’t always mean there's one waiting for you. It can be frustrating - and your feelings of frustration are perfectly warranted - but it means your attention should swing towards accepting that things cannot be changed and minimising the impact that stress has on you.

Look for opportunities to give yourself a break, take a few minutes to talk things over with a friend, and try to let go of any anger, unfairness, or irritation you're feeling that will only feed your stress levels.

Six quick tactics that may help you stop Christmas stress

1. Take a moment and focus on the three essential things that make the season special

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed and stressed out, take a moment and figure out what three things make the holidays meaningful for you. What those things are doesn't really matter, but focusing on those three things and what it takes to make them happen will give you really clear signposts for the tasks that are really important when you're crunched for time.

2. Pick your venue

If you're catching up with friends and family who stress you out, look at options for meeting up in public rather than heading over to someone's house. A restaurant or a café has a couple of advantages. First, the presence of strangers can be a big help when it comes to limiting unwanted behaviour, and second, restaurants and cafes make it much easier to control the time you're spending with the people who stress you out.

3. Ask individuals for help, not groups

If you're overwhelmed with organisational tasks, or simply setting things up for the holidays in general, you'll often have more luck asking individuals to help you out with specific tasks than you'll have if you send a group message asking for volunteers. Asking a group means there's a good chance everyone will hesitate, waiting to see if someone else will step up to assist. When you contact someone directly, with a specific task, it makes it clear that you're asking them for help and no-one else is going to do it.  

Do you find delegating difficult? You might feel the need to do everything yourself in order to get it done "right", but it's not always possible to do everything yourself. If your to-do list is keeping you up at night, try asking for help and seeing what happens. If the result isn't perfect, does it matter? Do you have more fun when you let others join in?

4. List your triggers

You may feel like stress is a constant, low-grade feeling that permeates the holidays, but there will usually be a handful of things that really stress you out. If you feel like things have gotten worse all of a sudden, or you find yourself restless and unable to sleep, try making a list of the stress triggers that have set you off. Even if you've done this before, take a moment to refocus on what's stressing you out - it will give you brain something concrete to focus on and resolve.

5. Be honest about your budget with friends and family

Money tends to become a major source of stress when the holidays hit, particularly if they represent a sudden spike in social outings, present buying, and expensive groceries that haven't been factored into your budget. It's not always easy to admit that money is tight and old Christmas habits aren't really viable, least of all to ourselves, but being honest about what you're thinking and feeling is the first step to relieving the gnawing stress.

6. Write or rewrite your to-do list

When you're stressed out your to-do list can feel like the enemy, especially when it's just a long list of important tasks without any context or priority. If you're feeling like things are out of control, or like you're not going to get everything done, take five minutes to rebuild your to-do list along with an action plan. Try to focus on three things:

  • What tasks do you need to do, before other people can start doing their work?
  • Can you break down anything on your to-do list into smaller, more specific tasks? Try and keep things focused on one specific task at a time, like vacuum the living room, rather than a more ambiguous entry that could be a whole group of tasks, like clean the living room.
  • What is the best order to tackle everything on your list in order to get everything done?

Four things to focus on when you're feeling frazzled at Christmas

1. Make sure you get enough sleep

Focus on maintaining good sleep hygiene during the holiday period and do your best to get a full 8 hours of sleep a night. It can be tempting to give up sleep in order to get things done when you're busy, but the hour you gain by staying up past your bed-time probably isn't going to be as productive as you think. Lack of sleep also tends to lower the threshold at which you start experiencing stress, making you more prone to anxiety and anger than if you were fully rested.

2. Practise relaxation techniques or meditation

Schedule some regular time to practice some stress-busting relaxation techniques that will slow down your heart rate and breathing. Not all techniques will work for every person, but over time they can help you identify the physical effects of stress and starting making conscious decisions to respond to it.

3. Get in some exercise

There's a lot of good reasons to fit some exercise into your day, but when you're stressed out, the shot of endorphins and time spent focusing on something other than your stressors will help a lot. Exercise will also make it easier to sleep, so it's a two-for-one gain. Aim for thirty minutes of moderate physical activity every day.

4. Eat healthy

Persistent stress tends to affect your appetite, taking you from 'not hungry,' to 'starving,' without warning. Your first instinct may be to skip meals, or reach for sugar and fat-heavy comfort foods when the hunger pangs hit, but this combination tends to leave you tired and lethargic. Aiming for three regular meals each day, and focusing on two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables at the core of your diet, is a better way of combating stress and its far better for your long-term health.

More information

For more information about managing stress and maintaining your work-life balance, visit the Queensland Government website.

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Last updated: 6 January 2017