Your Holiday Stress-Busting Tool Belt

For many, this is the time of year for entertaining, cleaning, decorating, cooking, shopping, wrapping presents, seeing family, and creative budgeting. It can also be a time of increased stress and tension. For this reason we have decided to do this month’s blog on stress management. If the sound of Christmas music makes your blood pressure rise and the smell of nutmeg causes your neck muscles to tighten, this month’s blog may be especially helpful.

First, let review a bit about stress and the stress response. When we interpret a situation as being potentially dangerous our bodies release stress hormones (i.e., cortisol and norepinephrine). These hormones mobilize energy from storage to our muscles; increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate; and shut down metabolic processes such as digestion, reproduction, growth and immunity. In a dangerous situation, this response helps to defend and protect ourselves (i.e., fight or flight response). Left unchecked stress can, however, negatively affect us in a variety of ways including physically (i.e., headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension), emotionally (i.e., anxiety, restlessness, increased irritability, sadness) and behaviorally (i.e., over/under eating, anger outbursts, drug/alcohol use, social withdrawal).

So what triggers us to feel stressed out? Many people consider stress to be something that happens to them, such as an injury or a promotion, whereas others believe that stress is a response to an event. While stress does involve events and our response to them, our thoughts about the situation is the critical variable in determining the level of stress we experience. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA, 2013), when something happens to us we automatically assess the situation and decide if it is threatening, how to deal with it, and what skills we can use. If we determine that we do not have the skills/strategies to manage the demands of the situation then we label the situation as “stressful” and stress levels begin to rise. If we decide that our coping skills outweigh the demands of the situation, however, then we will not view it as threatening. A helpful way of decreasing holiday stress is to therefore remind ourselves of the skills and coping strategies we do possess and learn some additional coping strategies so that we feel more confident and prepared to manage the holidays stress-free. The following are some strategies you can add to your holiday stress-busting tool belt.

Remember the four A’s: Avoid, Alter, Accept, and Adapt

Although some things are unavoidable and healthier to be addressed it is amazing how many things can be avoided to reduce stress over the holidays. Even small steps can have a big impact such as not having alcohol, sweets, caffeine or politely declining invitations that would create unnecessary stress.
Take control of your surroundings– If going to the mall is a stressful event for you, try online shopping. If holiday music is triggering, throw on a CD or listen to your favourite MP3.
Avoid people that bother you– If you can’t avoid a holiday party where someone you dislike is present, limit the time you are there or try to spend more time socializing with others.
Learn to say “no”– Know your limits and stick to them. If uncle Bob in Burlington is asking you to come over for a holiday celebratory tea but you have already been to aunt Susie’s in Oshawa and your best friend Mike’s in Sutton, its ok to politely decline.
Reduce your “to do” list– Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts” on your list.

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, decrease the impact of it by altering your response. The way we think about a situation often has a direct impact on our experience of it. Commit to believing you can handle the extra workload or party schedule…and you will.
Compromise-If being with family all day is too difficult agree to come for the afternoon and volunteer at a soup kitchen in the evening.
Express yourself– Instead of bottling up your emotions challenge yourself to share them as well as what you may be needing from others.
Take a time out– Take a break when tensions rise as opposed to saying or doing something you may later regret.

Although it can be challenging, sometimes it is easier to accept certain stressors than trying to resist or fight them. Nothing is perfect. People say dumb things. Shopping malls are crowded. Some stress is inevitable.
Talk with someone-Prior to family gatherings talk with a close friend or a therapist who can help to support you.
Forgive-If your brother forgets to bring the stuffing remind yourself that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes.
Practice positive self-talk– Remind yourself that you’ve gone through similar experiences and have the skills to cope.
Don’t try to control the uncontrollable– As opposed to yelling at Jimmy for burping at the dinner table, accept that his manners may differ from yours and take it as a compliment to your cooking instead.

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. “My best is going to have to be good enough.”
Adjust your standards– Although everyone wants a nicely decorated house for the holidays there is no need to compete with Martha Stewart.
Reframe the issue– Rather than fuming about the line up or traffic jam, take it as an opportunity to call a friend or your mom.
Adopt the mantra “I can handle this”
Consider at the big picture-Is getting the perfect present reallllly the most important thing or is it about being with friends and family?

Best wishes for a healthy, happy, stress-free holiday.

Kerry & Philippa

Canadian Mental Health Association (2003). What is stress? Retrieved from

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