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The most wonderful time of the year can easily become the most stressful, too. With schedules full of entertaining, family celebrations, gift-buying and travel planning (not to mention the added pandemic-related factors we’re still navigating), it’s not hard to feel overwhelmed during the holidays. But instead of getting burned out doing all the things this year, try to shift your focus to whatever makes the holiday season meaningful to you. Maybe that’s reconnecting with distant loved ones, celebrating with friends, or just enjoying downtime at home with family. And though it may not be possible to avoid stressful situations altogether, there are strategies you can try to minimize their effect. Here’s how to decompress when all that holiday busyness gets the best of you.

REALIZE YOU CAN’T DO IT ALL

Worries about lack of time, finances, the hassle of travel and taking time off can trigger a lot of emotions that make the holidays a very stressful time, says Muhammad Zeshan, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers University Medical School. Even so, the majority of holiday stress stems from the pressure to be perfect, he says. Trying too hard to be perfect can backfire, dampening true joy. Instead, emphasize self-compassion, says Zeshan. That means allowing yourself to make mistakes and being kind and forgiving.

Be mindful of your own unique triggers and make a plan to deal with them in advance, says Zeshan. Reflect on holidays past, making note of interactions or activities that caused you stress; then, develop action plans to mitigate similar situations this season. That could mean being more selective about which parties you go to, avoiding the urge to overspend on elaborate gifts, or enjoying holiday food and drink without overindulging.

As much as we love our families, all that togetherness can be stressful in itself, especially when you don’t see eye-to-eye. “It’s okay to ask people not to discuss certain topics. So if you know Uncle Henry has extreme views, I think it’s okay to ask him not to talk about those things during the holidays,” says Steven Tobias, Psy.D., director of the Center for Child & Family Development in Morristown. Beyond that, it helps to view things with acceptance, he says. “People have different religious, political and social views than you do. Just accept that, and don’t go into it trying to change anybody’s mind.”

IDENTIFY AND COMBAT STRESS TRIGGERS

This year, holiday stress may be even trickier to manage due to the mental health impacts of the pandemic. In fact, according to a February 2021 brief, four of every 10 adults reported feeling anxious or depressed from January to June 2021, vs. one of every 10 during the same period in 2019. And because children under the age of 5 still aren’t able to be vaccinated, the once-simple decision of whether or not to attend indoor parties can send parents over the edge. All that unpredictability can trigger a stress response in our brain, putting us into fight or flight, says Zeshan.

When this happens, our emotional brain is so activated that it hijacks our thinking brain. As a result, we become angry or withdrawn, says Zeshan. To combat this, reach out to someone you feel comfortable sharing your feelings with, he advises. Doing this helps activate our thinking brain, allowing it to regain control and make calm and rational decisions.

SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

Instead of diving head-first into holiday festivities, pause to assess your values and goals for this time of year, says Tobias. “Take a step back and start with, ‘What’s meaningful to me, what is it about the holidays that I value?’’ he says. Then, identify ways to put those things first.

Sometimes, we need to acknowledge the discrepancy between our expectations and our reality to avoid undue stress, says Tobias. “We may have this Hallmark-card version of the holidays with everyone sitting around the table and getting along; everything’s perfect and wonderful. But with most families that’s not the case. There’s no such thing as perfect, and when people are trying to make it perfect, they’re going to end up just failing,” he says. If it’s really stressing you out, maybe the house doesn’t have to be spotless, or you can skip preparing the elaborate dish that takes all day to make. We simply can’t do it all, agrees Amy Nolan, Ed.S, a psychotherapist, life coach and content manager at Institute for Integrative Nutrition and mom of two based in Jackson. “Think about what’s important. If the book club cookie exchange is stressing you out because you hate baking and you’d rather take your kids to a light show, go with your kids and give your best wishes for the cookie exchange without your presence. It’s not realistic to try to do both or bring that stress upon yourself. People will move on without your cookies and your kids will remember this special time with you seeing the lights,” says Nolan.

Prioritize downtime when you need it. “You can’t just keep going and going. If you’re preparing the meals, be sure to sit back, relax and have some down time,” Tobias says, adding that sharing responsibilities with others is also an important stress reducer. “I think a lot of people feel like they have to do it all, or they’re hesitant to ask for help, but the holidays are really about sharing, being together, and loving one another,” he says.

TRY RELAXATION TECHNIQUES

Be aware of the things that bring joy to your life and try to engage in those activities, says Zeshan. “For some people it’s baking cookies, watching movies, dining out, listening to music, reading a favorite novel, practicing yoga or meditation/mindfulness,” he says. It’s all too easy to neglect our basic needs during this exciting time of year, but try to get adequate sleep, eat well and keep alcohol within reason. Don’t try to be super mom to keep stress at bay, says Zeshan.

As hard as it is to do, put self-care on your calendar, says Nolan. “Take a sick day if you need it, or plan some time to just sit and read for a couple of hours while the kids are in school. As parents, we are sometimes wired to do for others before ourselves, so whatever this space is, we want it to be specifically for you to recharge, focus on your self-care and do something that brings you joy (even if it’s vision-boarding for next year). And don’t feel guilty taking this time! If you’re recharged for yourself, you’ll avoid burnout and have more energy for everyone else,” Nolan says.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to your friends. “I like to say ‘it’s better out than in’ when it comes to our emotions, however, there’s a caveat. After you get it out to someone, take the next step—how can that person support you? What do you need from them? Is it feedback, advice, validation, compassion? Be specific and let them know,” Nolan says.

Here’s to a stress-free, fun-filled holiday season!

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