While the holidays are a time of joy, they can also be a time of both physical and mental stress. Texas A&M AgriLife experts say managing holiday stress requires setting priorities and avoiding or reducing as many stressors as possible. 

A couple taking a stroll in a lighted path during the holidays
Taking a stroll is a good way to relax and reduce stress during the holidays, (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Michael Miller)

“Many people begin to feel unhappy or lonely around the holidays,” said Miquela Smith, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service health specialist for the agency’s Disaster Assessment and Recovery unit. “The reasons can range from the weather to personal loss, feeling disconnected from others, financial strain and a variety of other reasons.”

In some instances, these winter blues can be more serious. They affect how a person feels, thinks and handles daily activities, said Smith, who is based in Lubbock.  

“Usually, holiday blues are temporary feelings of loss, anxiety, tension, frustration or loneliness,” said Smith, who is also a mental health first aid instructor. “But ongoing and more significant changes in mood or behavior could mean the person is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is a type of depression.”

She said stress, unrealistic expectations or even sentimental memories can be a catalyst for holiday blues. Other factors can be less sunlight, changes in diet or daily routine, financial strain or the inability to be with friends or family.

Reducing personal, social stress during the holidays

“Something that can help if you begin to feel overwhelmed during the holidays is just recognizing what things are in your control versus what things are not,” Smith said. “This perspective can be valuable during the holidays — a time when we are usually unable to keep to normal schedules and routines.”

She said an example might be responding to a family member you don’t get along with at a gathering.

“You can’t control what that person does or says, but you can control whether or not you spend time with or engage in conversation with that person,” she said. “Similarly, if a certain event or social gathering is stressful to you for whatever reason, you can make the decision to only stay for a short period of time.”

Smith said some additional tips for managing personal or social stress during the holidays might include:

— Acknowledging to yourself that it’s okay to feel unhappy.

— Sticking to familiar or normal routines as much as possible.

— Reaching out to others for support and companionship.

— Learning to say “no” to holiday activities you don’t have time for or that you know will likely cause stress.

— Eating healthy meals and getting adequate rest.

— Avoiding excessive eating and drinking.

— Getting daily physical activity.                                                      

— Taking the occasional breather to walk or listen to music.

“Some people also reduce stress through mindfulness activities such as meditation or yoga,” Smith said. “Others may get a psychological benefit from doing something to help others during the holidays, such as volunteering to deliver meals. Try to find something to do that will make you feel more relaxed and promote your emotional well-being.” 

Finally, if you are unable to turn those negative feelings around, Smith said, then it may be time to seek professional help.

“People who already live with a mental health condition should take extra care to tend to their overall health and wellness during the holidays since this time of year can be particularly stressful,” she said. “As with any health condition, early intervention yields the best outcomes, so it’s better to talk to someone sooner rather than later.”

Reducing time- and finance-related stress during the holidays

Holiday stress can also come from time management issues and financial pressures, noted Joyce Cavanagh, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension specialist in the agency’s Family and Community Health Unit. “Financial pressure and time restrictions are often two of the top stressors during the holidays, so be sure to adequately plan both holiday shopping and family time.”

Cavanagh said people should budget for the gifts when holiday shopping and, whenever possible, pay by cash or with a debit card. 

“Be realistic when creating a budget by using real prices, not ballpark figures,” she said. “Don’t forget to include travel, food and entertaining costs in your holiday budget. And remember to jot down what you’ve bought so you don’t lose track of how much you’ve spent.”

Cavanagh noted a lot of time management-related stress may be alleviated by “padding in” some additional time when scheduling visits or entertaining and by asking others for help with holiday activities.

“Try to avoid multiple visits that require extra time and build additional time into planning visits to provide flexibility and accommodate for any unforeseen circumstances,” she said. “Prioritize what’s really important to you and your family, then plan your holiday activities accordingly. Don’t try to please everyone by going from one home or activity to another. That will only stress you out more.”

Reducing stress through healthy eating, self-care

Jenna Anding, Ph.D., RDN, a professor and AgriLife Extension specialist in Texas A&M’s Department of Nutrition, said holiday stress can often lead to overeating.                         

“For some individuals, overeating is a challenge to individual wellness during this time of year, especially if food is used as a means of responding to stress,” Anding said. “Be mindful of what and when you eat. If you find yourself tempted to eat, ask yourself, ‘Am I really hungry or am I eating for another reason?’” 

She said if you think you are eating because of stress, go for a walk or talk to a friend.

“If you find yourself invited to holiday parties and office luncheons this festive season, try to choose foods that are lower in saturated fats, salt and added sugars,” Anding said. “Better yet – bring your favorite — and healthy — dish to make sure you have at least one better option available.”                     

AgriLife Extension also has tips on how to alter traditional holiday recipes to make them healthier. Recipes with lower-fat, lower-calorie and lower-sugar ingredient substitutions can make recipes healthier without and significant change in taste or texture.

Similarly, the agency offers “Eating Well for Healthy Living,” a course in which participants learn to reduce stress through meal planning and physical activity. The course addresses how to spend less and get more at the grocery store. It also explains how to safely store and prepare food.   

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