How to Keep Stress In Check During the Holiday Season

Taking your dog for a walk can be a great way to build resilience to both predictable and unpredictable stressors.

By: Dr. Lindsey Duca, Health Psychology

Between snow storms, traveling with the family, holiday gatherings and out of town visitors, the holiday season has earned its reputation for bringing a healthy dose of stress along with sugar plums and mistletoe rendezvous. The good news is that while you may not be able to eliminate holiday stress, you do have a lot of options for taking care of your mind, body, and spirit during the holiday season and avoiding holiday burnout.

Take Care of your Mind and Body. Taking care of the basics can build resilience to both predictable and unpredictable stressors. If you are missing medications, skipping meals, not caught up on your sleep, and not moving your body, you are going to have less reserve in the tank when a new challenge arises. It may not be possible to prioritize all aspects of self-care (in fact, you don’t want to add to your stress by setting unrealistic goals!), but most of us can spend a few minutes taking a personal inventory and choosing one of two areas where a little change could go a long way.  Consider adding a walk with your dog, checking in with your doctor if you are having a hard time with a medication, or giving yourself permission to go to bed a little earlier. As Audre’ Lord wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation”.

Build in Positive Experiences. It can be difficult to mitigate negative experiences and negative emotions, but you CAN proactively plan for positive experiences and positive emotions. Building positive experiences is like starting an emotional bank account– each time you do something pleasurable, however small, you are making a deposit. These small pleasures can give you a buffer for holiday stresses and help you build the emotional wherewithal to cope with setbacks and frustrations when they do occur. Even if your small pleasure is as simple as spending a few minutes singing along to the car radio, or having a 5 minute phone call with a friend, it can help to be mindful that this event is JUST FOR YOU. This can be particularly helpful during the holidays, when a lot of emotional energy may be spent on other priorities. When you build positive experiences, you are treating yourself with decency, love, and respect.  You may notice that the more attention you pay to positive experiences, the more you’ll experience!

Cope Ahead of Time. Some stressful experiences can be extremely predictable– you know they are coming and you can guess that you will have a strong emotional reaction. When a predictable stressor is on the horizon (and the holidays can be full of these!), you have the opportunity to develop a strategy for coping ahead of time so you feel more prepared for the challenge.

There are 4 basic steps to coping ahead of time:

1) Describe the situation– Be specific about what is going to trigger a stress reaction and what concerns you have. Are you anticipating spending time with a difficult relative? Are you worried about hosting a large event? Are you trying to balance health goals with holiday parties and treats? Have a sense of exactly what problem you are anticipating, and develop a very clear understanding of what you would consider a positive, realistic outcome.

2) Choose a coping strategy- Be thoughtful about whether the predictable stressor is one you can problem-solve, or one that you will do best to simply survive. In some cases, you may have more options than you think, and engaging in a personal brain-storming session, either on your own or with a neutral third party may present some options you had not previously identified. However, some stressors may not respond to problem-solving. In this case, your best option may be to focus on self-care and to be very mindful of not making the stressor worse. This can be particularly true with interpersonal stressors, which can often come up during the holiday season. Regardless of the type of stressor you are envisioning, be thoughtful about which strategy will work best for you. Be specific—it is often helpful to write coping options out in detail and to be evaluative about which one seems like the best fit for the situation at hand.

3) Visualize the situation– Once you have a clear sense of what you concern is and have chosen a coping strategy you think may be helpful, it is time to practice! Visualize yourself in the predictably stressful situation—be sure to envision the situation in detail, in the present tense, and make it as vivid and real as possible. Neuroscience research shows that visualization can be as effective as actually doing something in terms of how your brain processes information. In fact, visualization is often used by professional athletes, including former Badger QB Russell Wilson, as part of their mental preparation before competition, and is used as a performance enhancer.

4) Rehearse coping effectively– This is a particularly useful step if the stressor you are envisioning is interpersonal. In addition to visualization, it may help to physically rehearse exactly what you would like to do in the situation. This may include your actions, thoughts, what you say and how you would like to say it, even your body language. It will likely also be helpful to rehearse coping with potential problems that come up—we all benefit from a good back up plan! When you are rehearsing, be sure to make this a realistic world, but also to rehearse the situation going as well as is reasonable to expect. You want to visualize yourself coping EFFECTIVELY.

Final thoughts–Reach out. Sometimes seeking professional assistance can be an essential stress management strategy. If you are feeling overwhelmed, are struggling to manage stress on your own, or worry about the impact of stress on your emotional and physical wellbeing, discuss a health psychology or behavioral health referral with your doctor.

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