For all the joy the holidays bring, they can pack on a lot of guilt, self-doubt, and stress, too. Why? “The holidays present a firm deadline, and, despite our best efforts, many of us can’t seem to get everything done,” says B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., a family psychologist and author of Try To See It My Way. “In addition, we attach unrealistic expectations to single-handedly maintain traditions and find the perfect gifts for everyone, all to give others that perfect holiday experience,” she says.
When one person attempts to do it all, a feeling of falling short looms. Add in family and social pressure to be merry, no matter the situation, and you’ve got a recipe for internal struggles. But it’s possible to alleviate some of the pressure and shift a stressful mood. Here’s how to find peace amid all the shopping, baking, carolling, and mingling.
Be Choosey with To-Dos
“Being responsible for maintaining every tradition can be overwhelming—especially when you think others are counting on you to do it,” says Hibbs. Instead of taking on all the seasonal trappings, pick the rituals and traditions that are most important to you and give yourself an out for the rest. Maybe that means you’ll spend your evenings after work addressing and stamping holiday cards, but you won’t participate in the cookie swap this year. Your loved ones will still appreciate your efforts.
Take a Walk Outside
It might be cold out there, but being active in nature is good for your body and your mind. Research shows people who visit green spaces have lower levels of stress hormones after spending time outside than those who haven’t been outdoors recently. And a walk in nature can help quiet the negative thoughts swirling in your head, too. So when you’re ruminating about the guy who stole your parking spot at the mall or you’re worried you didn’t find the perfect gift for your sister, put on your scarf and gloves and head to the nearest park or hiking trail to get your steps going!
Remember to Breathe
Even if the only alone time you can manage happens in the bathroom, you can still take advantage of your body’s natural de-stress mechanism: breathing. “Deep breathing helps to rid your body of toxins and quiet anxiety,” explains yoga expert, Linda Bhreathnach. “It’s easy, natural, and free—and the more you do it, the more you will realize the benefits,” she says. A technique to try: Sit upright with good posture and place one hand on your belly, and the other hand on your chest. Breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold for one count, and then slowly release the air through pursed lips for four counts; repeat for 10 full breaths. When you’re doing it right, your belly will move more than your chest, says Bhreathnach.
Make a Gratitude List
Carve out 2 to 5 minutes each day to write down what you’re thankful for, and be sure to include yourself on that list. “It’s great that many of us remember what others do for us, but we forget what we get done and what we do for ourselves,” says Lorraine Miller, a gratitude coach and author of the award-winning journal, From Gratitude to Bliss: A Journey in Health and Happiness. “Maybe you had a busy week, but you still managed to make it to the gym once—put that on your list. Focus on your accomplishments instead of what you haven’t crossed off your to-do list for a change,” she says.
Stretch Away the Stress
While experts believe stretching won’t improve (and in some case can impede) your athletic performance, research still shows doing gentle movements that elongate your muscles, such as those found in yoga, helps to reduce physical signs of stress and can improve your mental outlook. Can’t fit a full stretch session or yoga class into a jam-packed holiday party schedule? Take a minute to simply stretch out your limbs before you head out the door. Lift your foot up and back towards your bottom to get your quads; place your heel on a chair and bend forward to hit your hamstrings; raise your hands over head, grab a wrist and gently lean to the opposite side for a nice rib cage opener. Even just loosening a few muscles can help you free up mental space for optimism and fun.