Managing Stress During the Holidays

by | Dec 1, 2021 | Health

Are you the person who faces the holidays with dread? Who cringes when you see the number of days remaining until Christmas? Are you tempted to block people on Facebook who post that they already have their Christmas tree up before Thanksgiving? If you are, you join a host of people who face the holidays with anxiety due to the stress you feel. However, a real truth is that the holidays are not stressful, it is each individual who creates their own stress. We create our own stress in many ways, and we do it to ourselves. We create unrealistic expectations of how the holidays should be…ones we can never meet, and therein lies the stress.

Different people create their own stress through these expectations whether it is with physical tasks we believe we must complete or emotional experiences we believe we must have. Women particularly are vulnerable to creating their own stress. Whether trying to replicate the feats of Martha Stewart or trying to keep up with your friends and neighbors, the tasks we create for ourselves – shopping, wrapping, decorating, sending cards, cooking – it seems to never end. And then there are the parties – what to wear, how to make it to all of them. There is hardly time to even enjoy the holidays, and that is where the stress really exists.

When thinking of holiday stress, I divided it into the following categories: Tasks, Perfectionism, Emotional, Financial, Time Management, and Health concerns. I spoke with a local psychiatrist, Barbara Lowry for some tips, and also consulted the web for stress management techniques. Dr. Lowry is a board-certified psychiatrist in Salisbury who has been in practice for 36 years and had some great insights.  Mayo Clinic and others list the typical and expected strategies – eat properly, minimize alcohol intake, get exercise, and plenty of sleep – the things we should always do. But what about some specifics?

Regarding tasks, the first thing to remember is that you don’t have to do EVERYTHING, and you don’t have to do it all yourself. Many people have foregone sending Christmas cards, but if it is something you enjoy, get your family to help. I address ours, but my husband does the return address labels, stamps and takes them to be mailed. My daughter-in-law turned me on to the use of gift bags for wrapping – which saves enormous time. Our rule of thumb is to wrap it if it comes boxed and bags it otherwise. We save our bows from year to year in a big box, so no creating new bows every year. Finally, we save our Christmas cards and my mother, who is 93, enjoys cutting out tags from them for the next year. It keeps her occupied during the dreary January days ahead! We recycle those, too! The same with decorating….get the family to help! According to Dr. Lowry, we should focus on the reason for the season and on being present. Don’t get so wound up in doing all the tasks that you miss the season. Dr. Lowry’s favorite quote is, “The present is your presence.”

Perfectionism and keeping up with your friends and neighbors is a stress trap. No one will remember what you wore last year, I promise. There is no such thing as the “perfect” Christmas, and we create stress in trying to make it so. Hallmark movies and social media are fantasies and cause us to feel that we live inadequately. Dr. Lowry advises, “don’t measure yourself by other people. Focus on what is fun for you!” In my past, I have gotten caught up in trying to create the perfect Christmas, only to find out that my family preferred me to stop and help the kids put together the Lego set, than to set the perfect Christmas dinner table.

The emotional aspects of the holidays can be tricky. Holidays tend to bring out a lot of memories, losses, and grief. Adults often grieve for their childhood memories, which are generally remembered better than they actually were. Again, a strategy is to try to focus on the reason for the season. You cannot recapture the past,  but you can create a wonderful one now. We have to remember, the holidays are not all about us, and use strategies to take our mind off ourselves. Dr. Lowry emphasizes using the holidays as an opportunity to give to others, such as helping out at Rowan Helping Ministries, or taking on a gift or family from the numerous “Angel Trees” in the community. She also cautions not to get caught up in doing so much for others that you neglect self-care. Try to find one thing a day to do for yourself…a nature walk, a bubble bath, a good book, or a cup of hot chocolate. This will help you slow down and live in the moment. But many people are dealing with the first holiday without a loved one, and the grief is very real. She encourages those folks to seek grief counseling or talk with their doctor about strategies or therapies that might help.

Financial stress can be managed with good budgeting and garnering agreement ahead of time on expectations. The only thing worse than overspending is to create stress for someone else because they cannot afford to get you an equally expensive gift. Again, the love and experiences are the gems of the holidays…not the gadget that is soon forgotten. In our family, we do ‘wish balls’ every year, where we place inside a ball our greatest wish for the upcoming year, and we open it the following Christmas. This year I cheated and opened them all to see what everyone wished for. Not one material item. Not one. They wished for health, for relationships, and experiences such as “to be the best husband I can be.” That spoke volumes to me. As parents, we often get caught up in the latest “got to have” toy to get our children. I can remember staking out Wal Mart for the delivery truck bringing the correct Power Ranger years ago. And within a month of Christmas, our children are off onto something else. Don’t create that stress for yourself.

Time Management is one you can control….just say no. Decide ahead of time how many events you can manage per week, and stick to it. Ordering online is a great time management tool for shopping if you did it a month or six weeks ago. If you try it now you are in big trouble and will create more stress with deliveries, or lack thereof. Shopping locally helps support our community businesses, and you can walk out with your desired item, often gift wrapped. If you are cooking or hosting family for the holidays, choose items you can make ahead and freeze or refrigerate so that you won’t slave away in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun. Or better yet, have everyone bring an item, and when they say, “what can I bring?” allow them to bring something, even if it is a beverage or napkins.

Finally, as we work our way out of the Covid 19 pandemic, health concerns continue to create stress. Each person is different with varying degrees of vaccination status and vulnerability. I have an immunocompromised health status, so I have to be very cautious when attending an event that has a crowd even though I have received both vaccine doses and a booster. Bottom line, if you don’t feel comfortable with the group, the ability to socially distance, or your own health status, follow your gut. Wearing masks is not comfortable, but maybe indicated for some. We continue to need to follow the three W’s…wear a mask if you are going to be within 3-6 feet of others for more than 15 min, try to keep 3-6 feet distance from others especially when eating and drinking, and above all, WASH YOUR HANDS frequently.

Here’s to you having a healthy and stress-free holiday season!

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About The Author

Dari Caldwell

I was born and raised on the northern end of Kannapolis, NC and after college (UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University) I lived away from North Carolina for 12 years, during which I earned a doctorate in Health Care Administration. My career has been in healthcare for over 40 years and in addition to being a Registered Nurse, I have held healthcare executive positions in Los Angeles, California, New York, Concord, Charlotte, and finally completed my career as President of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, where I retired in 2020. I live in and love Rowan County and have enjoyed immersing myself in the community on various volunteer boards such as Rowan Cabarrus Community College, Rowan Chamber of Commerce, Rowan Economic Development, Novant Hospice Advisory, Healthy Rowan, and am now Board Chair for the Rowan Board of Health. In retirement, my husband David and I have enjoyed our hobby of vegetable gardening, and visiting our children. We have two sons – Trent, who is the head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lenoir Rhyne and is married to Brittany. They have 3 children including brand new twins! Our younger son Chris lives in Shreveport, Louisiana where he is an orthopedic surgery resident physician. We love sports, and also enjoy time at the lake, the beach, and with my 93 year old very spry mother!