Beat Holiday Stress with a Seasonal Toolkit

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Tis the season…for holiday stress.

Yes, the holidays are full of excitement, bright lights, pretty candles, and gifts of all sizes.  And while the actual celebrations tend to be fun in the moment (most of them, anyway), this time of year does tend to coincide with increased stress levels, decreased sleep, and just a little bit of irritability at times.

It doesn’t have to.  I’m not sure if it was always this way or if the pursuit of holiday perfection has increased over time, but it’s time to take a step back from holiday stress and get back in touch with the true meaning of the holiday season.

Randi Ragan, green living expert and founder of GreenBliss EcoSpa, agrees that stress takes away from the holiday season.  “We get so caught up in stress,” commented Ragan, “that we can’t see through the cloudiness.”  In that cloudy state of mind, we forget that the holiday season is about family, gratitude, and togetherness.  The rest is just stuff.

Common signs of stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Changes in appetite (overeating is common)
  • Increased illness
  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches, stomachaches, and back and neck pain

Randi Ragan and I discussed holiday stress at length and came up with a great seasonal toolkit to help your through this stressful time of the year, but the truth is that most of these tools can and should be used throughout the year.  When we take control of our stress levels, we take control of our lives.  And we also set a great example for our children.

Holiday stress toolkit:

Establish personal boundaries:

As Randi so thoughtfully pointed out, “We always make sure to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before we leave the house because that’s what we’re told will give us the best results.  It’s the same for stress.  We have to come up with a few strategies that work for us to combat stumbling blocks along the way.”

It’s important to set personal boundaries so that you don’t get caught up in obligations in an effort to placate other people.  When you’re always doing for others, your needs get left behind.  That can lead to resentment, exhaustion, and increased stress.

  • Decrease your obligations (do you really need to bake something for yet another bake sale?)
  • Reorder your priorities (take control of your to-do list and decide what’s necessary versus what’s not)
  • Learn to say no without excuses (there is no rule that you always have to say yes)

One other little (funny but true) tidbit from Randi:  “Potluck was invented for a reason – to stop everyone from losing their minds.”  Don’t cook the whole meal, mamas.  Assign tasks to your guests.

Be mindful:

Stress often causes us to lose sight of what’s happening right now.  People under stress tend to dwell in the past or project into the future.  Stress lends itself to thinking about regrets or worrying about what might or might not happen.  That kind of thinking distracts us from the present tense.

“We only have control over what’s happening right now,” says Ragan.  “This is your precious life – what are you going to do with it?”  Powerful, and also very honest, words.  We need snap out of the “what ifs” and live in real time if we have any hope of kicking stress to the curb.

  • Tape reminders to your car, your fridge, and your front door with notes that trigger you to stay in the present.  You know what keeps you grounded – those are the words that will bring you back to real time.
  • Schedule online and phone time and power down in between.
  • Have your kids create a “be present” box to hold all phones, tablets, and other items of distraction during family time.
  • Stop trying to document every single moment by camera or iPhone and allow yourself to actually revel in the moments instead.

Learn to breathe:

Deep breathing sounds like such a simple, and perhaps even silly, strategy, and yet many people don’t take the time to actually do it. “Deep breathing is miraculous,” says Ragan, “flooding your brain with oxygen calms you more than anything else.”

  • Practice deep breathing when you’re not under stress (just before bed and upon waking up in the morning are excellent times to work on deep breathing).
  • Inhale for a count of four, hold for three, and exhale for a count of four.
  • Practice yoga to work on mindful breathing.
  • Use visual reminders that simply say, “breathe”.

Keep healthy snacks in your purse:

You know what’s not good for stress levels?  Starvation!  Chances are that you always remember to pack snacks and water for your kids, but you rarely do the same for yourself.  Set up a grab-and-go system of healthy snacks in the fridge (string cheese, cut veggies, grapes) and in the pantry (mixed nuts, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, etc) so that you can throw a couple of snacks in your purse before you leave the house.  Fill that giant, reusable water bottle and stick it in the fridge before you go to bed each night to ensure that you stay hydrated throughout the day.

Decrease consumption:

“We have an obsession with consumption right now,” says Ragan, “but decreasing that consumption will help us carve away stress.”

Many families sort through toys, clothes, books, etc and donate gently used items before the holiday season.  This is a great way to give back and help others, and it teaches kids an important lesson.  When you have more than you need, you help those who have less.

But sometimes this simply makes room to fill with more things.  And while holidays gifts are fun and exciting, sometimes people go overboard (guilty as charged).  Consider scaling back and focusing on gifts with meaning instead.

  • Set limits with kids.
  • Have kids write the list early, and then revise it a couple of times.
  • Give the gift of time.
  • Make someone else happy – helping a neighbor or baking cookies for friends are gifts, too.

Factor in “me time”:

Me time doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.  It might be an hour alone with a good book or a manicure while the kids play with a neighbor.  Or maybe it’s a long, hot bath after the kids are in bed.

Many moms enjoy heading out with other moms for a night.  It’s great to get out with friends and decompress after a long week.

Or maybe you simply need a date night with your spouse.  Find what helps you recharge and bump that to the top of your priority list.  You deserve it.

If you live in the Los Angeles area, check out Ragan’s company, GreenBliss EcoSpa.  They will bring the pampering to you and a group of friends – doesn’t a “mom’s night in” sound amazing?

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For more on the importance of slowing down this holiday season, head over to Everyday Family.

Here’s to a happy and healthy holiday season!  Just remember to stop and breathe….

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)