Healthy You - Every Day

8 Tricks to Handling Holiday Stress

Start by identifying your triggers and managing your expectations


Holidays are supposed to be jolly almost by definition. But many people find the Halloween-New Year's stretch to be stressful and far from cheery. 

“There’s often a lot of financial strain coupled with family dynamics that can be hard to deal with,” says Cara Focazio, MD, an internal medicine physician with LVPG Internal Medicine–Bartonsville. “With that foundation, a minefield of other stressors can become more difficult.”

These can include high expectations for special dinners or events, grief over lost loved ones, sadness at the passing of another year, loneliness from lack of family or friends, guilt over food or alcohol excesses, or feelings of inadequacy. For some, lack of daylight can trigger seasonal depression that may make stress feel even worse.

Stress can take a physical as well as mental toll. “It can lead to high blood pressure and blood sugar, which can exacerbate conditions such as diabetes and hypertension at a time when you already may be eating more and exercising less,” says Ranju Gupta, MD, medical oncologist with Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute. Stress also may make you more vulnerable to seasonal colds and flu.

Some simple, mindful steps can help put more cheer back in your holidays.

Identify triggers

Think back on previous holidays or the past year and ask what situations have frazzled you. “Try to anticipate emotions, especially if you’ve been through a big personal change in your life,” says family medicine physician Jennifer Stockhausen, DO, with LVPG Family Medicine–Whitehall.

Tune out social media

“People tend to post only their highs and make everything look perfect,” Dr. Stockhausen says. “It’s easy to measure your holidays against everyone else’s and feel inadequate.” Avoid comparisons and try to be present with the people who are actually around you.

Embrace mixed emotions

“There’s a tendency for grieving people to feel guilty about being happy,” Dr. Stockhausen says. “But it’s OK to feel excited about seeing the grandkids – even when you’re sad at the same time. Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling.”

“Expecting that dinner will be perfect, everyone will love their presents and no one will cry – the world just isn’t like that.” - Daniel Benyo, MD

Manage expectations

“Sometimes we have a Norman Rockwell picture of how the holidays should go,” says internal medicine physician Daniel Benyo, MD, with LVPG Geriatrics and Internal Medicine–Brookhill Plaza, in Sugarloaf. “Expecting that dinner will be perfect, everyone will love their presents and no one will cry – the world just isn’t like that.” Recognize that expectations often come from within rather than from others. Plans failed? Family misbehaved? Dinner a disaster? “Sometimes those imperfect moments are comical if you step back,” Dr. Benyo says.

Cut yourself some slack

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a drink or sweet (or two). “It’s OK to enjoy the fruits of your labor in moderation at the end of the year with your community and just be present in the moment,” Dr. Benyo says.

Invest in yourself

Tend to basic health needs like keeping physically active, enjoying a healthy diet aside from seasonal treats, and getting enough sleep. Also, preserve just-for-you moments, even if it’s 15 minutes with a book before bed. “You’re the first priority even if you’re focused on others,” Dr. Focazio says. “To be a good caregiver, you need to care for yourself.”

Plan ahead

Knowing what’s likely to ratchet up tension helps you anticipate and avoid stressful situations or defuse them when they occur. If money worries you, create a budget. If mingling at parties cranks anxiety, form an exit strategy ahead of time. “Establish boundaries about what you can tolerate, what is non-negotiable, what spreads you thin and who you want to be around," Dr. Focazio says.

Join a support group

The holidays can be especially tough if you’re dealing with a chronic illness like cancer.

“Support groups can have a profound impact by allowing you to speak with others who have gone through similar experiences,” Dr. Gupta says. “They can be like a second family.”

Your primary care physician can help you stay healthy all season.

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