Nightmare

Five ways to manage holiday stress

Contributed by
Dec 24, 2018

As soon as Halloween ends, the mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas begins to stress about the next season. Although comical, the mayor’s stress of the perceived lack of time to prepare for an important holiday is not unlike what many of us go through when we get caught in the tangles of anxiety. Thoughts such as “I do not have enough time to do everything I need to accomplish before Christmas” can put an unduly pressure on us all.  

On the other hand, some individuals, like Jack Skellington, may be exhausted, bored, or apathetic about the holiday season, especially when it is accompanied with having to meet certain people’s expectations or put on a fake smile around people we may only tolerate. For individuals who may struggle with being understood or accepted for being different, feeling different, or wanting something different, it may be challenging to try to explain to others what they are going through. Sometimes, like Jack, we may wish to escape to an entirely new world, away from our routines and misery and go somewhere unknown, somewhere where no one knows us.   

This feeling of being misunderstood and alone is especially prevalent in trauma survivors. People, like Sally, who had been held captive or forced to do something against their will, prevented from making their own choices, controlled, punished, injured, and shamed, are likely to have a difficult time trusting others. Individuals with trauma history are likely to struggle when they are in large groups or crowds. They may also have a difficult time expressing themselves and vocalizing their needs. As a matter of fact, holidays can heighten the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness when some individuals are forced to be in an uncomfortable environment or with people with whom they do not connect. 

When we are stuck in the constant tidal wave of the non-stop flow of life, we may experience chronic fight-or-flight response. What this means is that we may often be holding our breath or breathing shallowly, making our hearts pound faster, making our blood vessels constrict. These physiological changes often lead to the release of adrenaline and cortisol, our body’s stress hormones. This stress response can make us feel lightheaded, shaky, nauseated, as well as overwhelmed and tired. Some people report an increase in physical pain, such as migraines and stomach aches, as well as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) around the holidays. Although anxiety is not dangerous, the stressful experience of the holidays can weigh a heavy toll on people struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and trauma.   

What are some ways of managing the stress of the holidays?

  1. First and foremost, take a breath. Slowing down our breathing can, in turn, slow down our heart rate and reduce the fight-or-flight mode over time. Doing slow breathing exercises (for as little as 10-20 minutes/day) on a regular basis has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms in people who normally struggle with these difficulties. 
  2. Slow down your actions. This may seem strange, but slowing down the pace at which you move, talk, and conduct yourself can also reduce your stress response. By slowing down your actions, you are basically communicating to your body that you do not need the high amount of adrenaline that it has been producing. Hence, slowing yourself down can slow down your heart rate as well. 
  3. Change up your traditions. When Jack Skellington was feeling tired of all the Halloween traditions, he went on an adventure to find himself. Sometimes, we may need to try something new, perhaps a yoga class, a painting class, a walk to a new location to change up our routine. Routines can create boredom, a sense of apathy, and a feeling of being stuck. Changing your routine can allow you to be mindful of your environment, as well as to get to know yourself with a new sense of wonder. This can provide a temporary mood boost or a respite from some of the overwhelming symptoms. 
  4. Self-compassion. Self-compassion means being as kind to ourselves as we would be toward a loved one. This means allowing yourself to slow down and take it easy, especially around the time that may be stressful for you. This also means that it is okay to speak up and stand up for your needs, as Sally does. This can also mean reducing the pressure on yourself in allowing yourself not to buy gifts for everyone on your list or reducing your holiday obligations, if necessary. People with chronic pain, for example, may need to take breaks or reduce the amount of responsibilities they put on themselves when it comes to holiday cooking or organizing. 
  5. Connection. What most people need when they are struggling is a sense of belonging and understanding. If possible, reach out to a friend or another trusted person. Alternatively, you can speak to a therapist or reach out to a support group. For example, The Mighty has established a #CheckInWithMe hashtag, which allows people to reach out for help to an online community. In addition, groups, such as Grief Share provide multiple in-person opportunities for people to meet up and support each other around the holidays. Finally, Option B provides a comprehensive list of Facebook groups sorted by categories, such as grief, divorce, LBGTQ rejection, and other to help people get connected and receive peer support from other people who are going through something similar.

If you are having a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line if you are in the U.S. 

To find a mental health professional near you, check out www.PsychologyToday.com

Other mentioned resources: 

https://themighty.com/topic/checkinwithme/

https://www.griefshare.org/holidays

https://optionb.org/find-an-option-b-facebook-group

Above all else, please know that things do get better, even though at times it doesn’t feel this way. Know that you are not alone in feeling the way that you do and that there are many people ready and willing to help. You mean more to this world than you may ever know. Thank you for being wonderful. 

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