By Dr. Mercola
The holidays are supposed to be one of the most joyous times of the year, and surveys show that the majority of Americans do feel positive emotions like happiness, love, and high spirits often during this season.1
On the other hand, emotions of all kinds are increased, and this includes negative feelings like anxiety, grief, and stress.
Many people report increased stress during the holidays as they try to pull together the “perfect” holiday for their families, which often means balancing work and social obligations with shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, and baking.
Financial pressures also tend to peak at this time of year, as do worries over having enough money to purchase gifts without running up credit card debt. Even worries related to work, including wrapping up year-end projects or getting enough time off, run high during the holiday season.
Who Faces the Most Stress During the Holidays?
A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that for most Americans, stress tends to increase rather than decrease during the holidays. A lack of time, a lack of money, and excessive commercialism are all common reasons for extra holiday stress.
The survey also found that women and lower-middle-income individuals are particularly vulnerable to holiday stress. The APA noted:2
“Holiday stress has a particular impact on women, who take charge of many of the holiday celebrations, particularly the tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home. Women are more likely than men to report an increase of stress during the holiday season.
In addition, they have a harder time relaxing during the holidays and are more likely to fall into bad habits to manage their stress, like comfort eating.
Holiday stress has an impact on lower middle income individuals. This group feels the weight of stress from work plus the seasonal rush to find time to get everything done. In addition, their worries about money are heightened by the commercialism of the season and the pressure to spend a lot of money.”
What’s the Point of a Holiday Celebration if You Don’t Enjoy It?
All of the hype and preparations surrounding the holidays can make it feel like one more “chore” that has to be dealt with. If your holiday morphs into the “chore” category, then really, what’s the point?
When you find yourself getting caught up in anxious thoughts about how you’ll get everything done, stop and remember that most people say spending time with their family and friends is what they look forward to most about the holidays.3 This season should not be about stress… it should be about relaxing and sharing good times with those you love.
Learn to Relax Your Breathing
One of the best, and simplest, ways to calm your nerves when you’re feeling tense or anxious is to practice more mindful breathing. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the relaxation response.
There are many different breathing practices that you can try, but here, I’m going to share two that are both powerful and very easy to perform. The first one I learned when I attended a presentation by Dr. Andrew Weil at the 2009 Expo West in California.
The key to this exercise is to remember the numbers 4, 7, and 8. It’s not important to focus on how much time you spend in each phase of the breathing activity, but rather that you get the ratio correct. Here’s how it’s done:
- Sit up straight
- Place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
- Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four
- Hold your breath to the count of seven
- Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight, making an audible “woosh” sound
- That completes one full breath. Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of four breaths
You can do this 4-7-8 exercise as frequently as you want throughout the day, but it’s recommended you don’t do more than four full breaths during the first month or so of practice. Later, you may work your way up to eight full breath cycles at a time. The benefits of this simple practice are enormous and work as a natural tranquilizer for your nervous system.
The second is known as the Buteyko Breathing Method, which is a powerful approach for reversing health problems associated with improper breathing, the most common of which are over-breathing and mouth breathing. When you stop mouth breathing and learn to bring your breathing volume toward normal, you have better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain.
Factors of modern life, including stress and lack of exercise, all increase the rapidity but not the quality of your everyday breathing. Typical characteristics of over-breathing include mouth breathing, upper chest breathing, sighing, noticeable breathing during rest, and taking large breaths prior to talking.
Controlling anxiety and quelling panic attacks is one of the areas where the Buteyko Method can be quite useful. If you’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or if you feel very stressed and your mind can’t stop racing, try the following breathing technique. This sequence helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, leading to calmer breathing and reduces anxiety. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you go into a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
- Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds
- Repeat the sequence
How to Relax During the Holidays: 9 More Tips
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, it’s time to put the following relaxation plan into action. Once you’re feeling relaxed, it will help you find greater happiness and purpose as you go about your day. Ideally, don’t wait until stress becomes all-consuming… make it a habit to use these relaxation strategies regularly and often, especially before, during and after the holidays:
Exercise affects a neurotransmitter that has an antidepressant-like effect on your brain while helping to decrease muscle tension.4
2. Spend Time in Nature
Even five minutes in nature can help reduce stress and boost your mood, helping you to relax.
3. Participate in Activities You Enjoy
Be sure to leave time for the holiday activities you love most, whether it’s caroling, decorating your Christmas tree, or writing holiday cards.
4. Stay Positive
Those who are optimistic have an easier time dealing with stress, and are more inclined to open themselves up for opportunities to have positive, regenerative experiences.
5. Take a Break or Meditate
Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly and shut out the chaos around you can trigger your relaxation response.5 Meditating during your breaks can help you to decrease feelings of stress and anxiety even more.
6. Live in the Present
Turn off your racing mind and simply focus on only the task at hand. Avoid worrying about what you need to do later in the day or tomorrow (if you have trouble shutting out such thoughts, jot them down on a piece of paper to help clear your mind).
7. Nurture Yourself
Try massage, a hot bath, mini-relaxations, or a quick walk to ease tension. Be sure you’re eating right, sleeping well and laughing often.
8. Be Grateful
Focus on what you’re grateful for. Keep a gratitude journal and write down why you’re grateful each day. Focus on what you do have this holiday season instead of what you don’t.
9. Use Visualization
Close your eyes and imagine yourself relaxing on the beach or sitting in front of a cozy fireplace with your family. You can also visualize your “perfect” holiday, which is especially useful if you’re worrying over what might go wrong. (Although, you should let go of the idea that your holiday must be perfect in order to be enjoyable.)
You Can Use EFT to Help You Relax
Using techniques like energy psychology can be a very effective way to help you relax and deal with heightened emotions over the holiday. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is the largest and most popular version of energy psychology. There are many derivatives of EFT and some likely work even better -- but EFT is the one that I have the most experience with and is the most established.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist. By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for stress relief.
Putting the Holidays Into Perspective
Perhaps more than anything, the key to enjoying and relaxing during the holidays may lie in the way you perceive them. Adjusting your attitude and your expectations can help turn an otherwise stressful holiday into a relaxing one. So when stress threatens to take over the show, here are a few more tips that can help you keep your sense of balance and calm during the holidays:
- Be gentle on yourself, and give yourself permission to say “No.” It really is okay to take special time for yourself. If the holidays have you feeling down for whatever reason, indulge in the things that make you feel happy, whether they’re holiday related or not.
- Seek out positive people who make you feel better, and avoid people who add to your stress or contribute to your depression.
- Regain a sense of control by scheduling no more than one or two manageable goals per day, even if they’re as simple as writing a few cards or cleaning a small section of a room. The satisfaction of completing these tasks can add to your sense of well-being and help you get everything done, over a longer period of time.
- If a certain tradition causes more stress and discomfort than joy, give yourself permission to do things differently! Remind yourself that there is no right or wrong way to celebrate Christmas. Ban the word “should.”
- Focus on what you and your family want to do for the holidays instead of what other families are doing.
- Take advantage of online shopping instead of rushing through malls, make homemade gifts, or give gifts of service, such as volunteering or cooking meals.
- If the thought of cooking Christmas dinner gives you a headache, arrange to have friends and family over to help you cook ahead of time or hold a potluck dinner instead.
- Make a concerted effort to realign the focus of the holiday to reflect your spiritual or ethical beliefs rather than commercial values. You may need to discuss how you and your family will do this, as it can take many forms depending on your beliefs.