It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The holidays. A time for gatherings with friends and family, finding the perfect gifts and decorating our homes with the holiday spirit. Despite our best efforts, the holidays can also invite other experiences that are not as appealing: stress. In addition, underneath the holiday demands lies our daily hassles that have already been a source of stress throughout the year including household chores, bills, commuting and job responsibilities. So with all of that where does our self-compassion fit in?
Here are some reminders and tips that can help reduce holiday stress.
- Stress is a part of life and can be a good thing. We often associate stress with chaos, depleted energy levels and an overall inability to get things done. However, we need to remind ourselves that stress is a normal response to demands and it allows us to adapt, cope and adjust. Without it, we probably wouldn’t initiate and complete tasks. When we experience a stressor, our body activates the release of chemicals and hormones resulting in physical sensations such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, inhibited digestion to name a few. Many of us label this experience as anxiety. But what if we viewed this response as our body’s way of helping us rise to the challenge. These physiological responses are activating adaptive behaviours such as increased energy, motivation and critical thinking. When we begin to rethink our relationship with stress and see it as a motivator then we can use our stress response to our benefit. Take a deep breath and use this holiday stress to tackle your day with drive, determination and direction.
- Exercise self-compassion. The holidays are a time for kindness and giving to others, however, we sometimes forget to check-in with ourselves. For some, this is a time where past pains or trauma may resurface. For example, if you have lost a family member, moving through the holidays can be challenging. Remember to exercise self-compassion. Self-compassion begins by becoming more aware of your feelings and validating your emotions without judgement. Remind yourself that what you are feeling is common and a part of life. Practice showing kindness, love and acceptance to yourself, the same way you would to others.
- Connect with others. Let’s revisit our discussion about stress and the body. As mentioned, our body has a natural stress response that pumps out hormones to help energize and prepare us to combat stress. One of these stress hormones is oxytocin. It has a unique and important function that is at times underestimated. Oxytocin is involved in increasing prosocial behaviour as a coping mechanism during stress. It nudges us to seek support from ourselves (self-compassion) and most importantly, others. Furthermore, when we do connect with others, the release of oxytocin increases! Oxytocin has even been given the cute nickname, the “cuddle hormone.” And it gets better! This powerful hormone directly impacts our heart. Here’s how: our hearts have receptors for oxytocin. When released, oxytocin will bind to these receptors and promote the regeneration of our hearts. Use your holiday stress as a driving force to connect with others and strengthen your compassionate heart.
- Devise a plan of action. One of the most efficient way of moderating stress is predictability. Do the best you can to plan shopping days, dinner menus and down time. When we set a plan, even a general one, we decrease the chances of being caught by surprise and overwhelmed. Also, remember you do not have to tackle everything on your own. Ask others for help when needed.
- Set realistic expectations. The holidays are often wrapped with expectations from family, friends and ourselves. We paint a picture of the perfect dinner, social gathering or gift. If they do not live up to our expectations or a specific reaction is not shown from others, then we can feel guilty or unfulfilled. Remember that the holidays do not have to be perfect. Allow the holidays to flow in their own way: traditions may change, family dynamics will shift and that is ok. Be open to acceptance, starting new traditions and inviting some spontaneity.
- Set boundaries. With the demands and expectations of the holidays we sometimes find ourselves saying yes when we want to say no. Not staying true to your boundaries can leave you feeling overwhelmed or resentful. Make sure you set clear boundaries during the holidays with yourself and others. Recognize when you are taking on too many responsibilities and delegate tasks to others. Also, remember that everyone is a little stressed during this time. Family and friends will understand if you can’t make your famous apple pie or attend every gathering.
- Practice self-care and don’t abandon healthy habits. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can toss us from one holiday party to another without any time to take a breath. Try to spend 15 minutes alone. Find a meaningful activity away from the holiday storm. Some options may include: reading a book, taking a walk, journaling or listening to music. Mental health requires balance and self-care helps us sustain this balance.
Also, do not make the holidays season a free for all when it comes to your healthy habits. Part of self-care is sticking with the goals you have set for yourself. Overindulging during the holidays will only add to your stress and produce guilt. Try having a healthy snack before a family dinner and stick to exercise routines that you set before the holidays with adjustments where necessary.
- Seek support when required. If you find that despite your best efforts you are persistently feeling sad or anxious, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores consider seeking support from a psychotherapist. You and your therapist can work together to identify challenges, develop goals and healthy coping mechanisms.
Although the holidays can be a stressful time, try not to allow this stress to overshadow the joy of the season. Remember that our body has been built to withstand such stressors. Plan, be kind to yourself, set realistic expectations and connect with others. With these tips in mind, you will be able to jingle all the way through the holidays with confidence!