The holidays are a joyous time, but they also can be stressful. Last-minute Christmas shopping, a whirlwind of parties and hosting out-of-town guests all can frazzle your nerves.
For some people, this hustle and bustle is a minor annoyance. But for others, holiday stress and anxiety pose serious health risks.
“The holiday season is a time when many people can experience feelings of anxiety or depression,” says Dr. Ken Duckworth, a psychiatrist and medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Of course, modern life is stressful throughout the year. But a perfect storm of factors makes holiday tensions especially taxing.
For starters, the holidays can entice you into negative behaviors, such as drinking too much alcohol at parties. Or, you might become too busy to exercise, depriving you of mood-boosting endorphins.
The hyper-commercialization of the holidays also can be depressing. And it’s easy to feel sad if you are separated from loved ones at this special time of year.
Even the weather can conspire to make you moody. The sun typically hides more often in the cloudier days that surround the winter holidays. A lack of sunlight has been linked to an increased risk of seasonal depression.
Symptoms of holiday stress
Experts cite several negative emotional and physical symptoms commonly associated with holiday stress, such as:
- A sense of loss
Beyond the emotional impacts, stress also can lead to physical ailments. Stomachaches and headaches are associated with periods of stress. Studies have linked chronic stress to an increased risk of some types of disease, such as heart ailments and cancer.
Some people also turn to dangerous bad habits – such as overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol – as a way to cope with stress, according to the American Psychological Association.
Reducing levels of holiday stress
While stress can take a serious toll during the holidays, there are things you can do to stay healthy and happy.
“Most importantly, be gentle with yourself,” Duckworth says. That includes trying to stick to normal routines, getting a decent amount of sleep and keeping up with your exercise schedule.
Also, make sure you have downtime. “Take time for yourself, but don’t isolate,” Duckworth says. “Listen to music, and find other ways to relax.”
Try to recognize when the holidays become overwhelming, and don’t do things that exacerbate the problem, or that cause you to feel shame, guilt or regret. “Eat and drink in moderation,” Duckworth says. “Don’t drink alcohol if you are feeling down.”
The American Psychological Association offers additional tips for reducing stress levels. They include:
- Try to identify the source of your stress. Keep a log of when you feel stressed, and what has triggered those feelings. Then, develop a plan to address the problem. For example, if you feel anxiety over planning a holiday party, ask for help from family or friends. If you worry about overspending, set a budget and stick to it. Or, encourage your family to create a “gift exchange,” in which one family member is responsible for buying a single gift for another member.
- Turn to your social network for support. Occasionally, family and friends can be a source of holiday stress. More often, they are a lifeline to restoring your sanity amid holiday chaos. When you feel stressed, reach out to loved ones for support.
- Just walk away. If you’re going nuts listening to Aunt Edna’s political views, try to gracefully remove yourself from the situation. Or, just take a deep breath. The APA says just counting to 10 can help you regroup. It also suggests blowing off steam by exercising, or even trying to pre-empt stress by taking a walk every day.
Finally, if these tips do not alleviate your stress, seek professional help. The APA’s Psychologist Locator tool can help you identify a professional in your community.