15 Ways to Stay Sane Over the Holidays

By Melissa Pandika | December 3, 2016 | Rally Health


Turn on the tube anytime post-Thanksgiving and you’re bound to stumble upon a holiday special or two, aglow with shots of friends and family feasting on a sumptuous dinner or opening perfectly wrapped presents, faces merry and bright. But the reality is often less heartwarming — a minefield of last-minute grocery runs, flight delays, and squabbling houseguests.

The most wonderful time of the year easily ranks as the most stressful. Among the most common sources of stress? Unrealistic expectations. “There’s an expectation from our culture that the holidays are the happiest time of the year,” says Jonathan Horowitz, Ph.D., a therapist based in San Francisco. Many of his clients strive for harmonious, hiccup-free experiences with their loved ones — and see anything that falls short as a failure. “It makes it hard for people to let go and enjoy the holidays.”

But the holidays needn’t give you a headache. Check out these stress survival tips on staying sane this season.

    1. Practice acceptance. Brace yourself for inevitable mishaps, and forget the “perfect” holiday. (It doesn’t exist.) Know what you can and can’t control, Horowitz says. Sure, you can schedule dinner reservations, but not whether Uncle Joe gets stuck in traffic and shows up an hour late.
    2. Plan ahead. Avoid the shopping rush and price hikes — buy flights and gifts in advance. Finish pressing work assignments before heading out of town. Get your wardrobe holiday-ready, and style, wash, and iron outfits ahead of time.
    3. Airbnb is your friend. If family gatherings tend to spiral into World War III, book a hotel or Airbnb for your guests nearby (or if you’re the one traveling, near Mom and Dad’s house) to give yourself some breathing room. “People need to be able to … get away and take a vacation from their vacation,” Horowitz says.
    4. Schedule “me” time. From company parties to family get-togethers, the holiday social whirlwind can easily sap your energy. Don’t feel obligated to accept every invitation. Take time alone to decompress. Meditate, take a tea break, or curl up with your favorite novel.
    5. Make a list, and check it twice. Letting holiday spending spin out of control only adds to the stress of the season. Write a list of what you need, and set (and stick to!) a budget for each.
    6. Squeeze in exercise. Exercise might seem like another item on an already endless to-do list, but not if you keep it simple. Go for a brisk walk around the block, or walk an extra lap around the mall. Research shows that even five minutes of moderate exercise can lift your mood.
    7. Everything in moderation. Avoid regret (and a hangover!) with a pre-party game plan. Fill up on a healthy snack beforehand and remind yourself to go easy on the booze and the sweets.
    8. Share the holiday spirit. Studies show that helping others enhances our mood and overall well-being. Volunteer for a local charity, or simply make someone smile — compliment a stranger, or schedule a coffee date with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
    9. Savor the season. Take a few minutes each day to enjoy the holiday sights and smells. Stroll or drive through your neighborhood to marvel at the lights. Indulge in a cup of hot chocolate. Inhale the aromas wafting from the kitchen.
    10. Have a shopping game plan. To minimize time spent shoving past the holiday mall mobs, know what items you want and where to find them in advance. Or shop online to avoid the frenzy altogether.
    11. Pump yourself up with peppermint. The scent of peppermint could boost alertness, according to one University of Northumbria study. For a quick pick-me-up, sniff a handkerchief sprinkled with peppermint essential oil. Other energizing scents might work too, like citrus.
    12. Tune out to cheer up. A recent University of Missouri study found that upbeat music can enhance mood. Bring a little cheer to your to-do tasks with some festive tunes. (Check out Filtr’s “Home for the Holidays” playlist on Spotify.)
    13. Take a step back. If you do find yourself mid-shouting match with cousin Annie, pause and ask yourself, “How important is this relationship in my day-to-day life?” So let it go, and get your holiday cheer on.
    14. Take a massage break. Feeling overwhelmed mid-dinner party? Duck out for 1 to 2 minutes and try this acupressure technique. Lightly press your earlobes between your thumb and forefinger. Rub your earlobes, and continue along the outer rim of the ear, to the tips. Press gently, all the way back to the earlobes.
    15. Remember what matters. What makes for a happy holiday? For many of us, it’s reuniting and connecting with loved ones, Horowitz says. Periodically ask yourself whether you’ve accomplished that goal. Chances are, you’ll answer yes (no matter how badly you burned the ham).

Select references:

Ferguson, YL and Sheldon, KM. Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2013. [Link]

Swartzberg, John. The Benefits of Giving. Berkeley Wellness. November 2013. [Link]

Moss, M, et al. Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang. International Journal of Neuroscience. January 2008. [Link]

Weir, Kirsten. The exercise effect. American Psychological Association. December 2011. [Link]


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