Stress may be five letters long but most of us consider it a four letter word. While some stress (known as “eustress”) may be beneficial for us in moderation—it can motivate and inspire, just as it can heighten focus and improve performance—negative stress, which we tend to experience with looming deadlines, strained relationships, and financial uncertainty, can wreak havoc on our health and happiness.
Many people, particularly women, also experience holiday stress—so much so that the season becomes filled with more fear than cheer. Thank consumerism and the media for the pressure—from glossy magazines to equally glossy commercials, one is led to believe that the only way to have a lovely holiday is to ensure that every detail is perfect. The true essence and purpose of Thanksgiving—to celebrate connections, to nourish our bodies and souls, and to express our gratitude—is often overshadowed by the myriad stresses that arrives with striving for flawlessness.
This year, consider a different tactic—one that places more emphasis on the richness of the experience and less on impossible standards.
Here are seven top tips to help reduce stress on Thanksgiving so that you—and your loved ones—can relish what the day is really about.
1. Find the source of your holiday stress.
Chances are, you can’t quite articulate what it is about Thanksgiving that leaves you weepy and frazzled. After all, it entails a four-day weekend (for most), tons of tasty holiday foods, less financial stress than Christmas—even football, parades and sales.
But the first step in having a stress-free Thanksgiving is identifying what, exactly, makes you anxious. Sit in a quiet space and jot down everything that makes you feel edgy about the day. Is it your uncle’s tendency to over-imbibe? Consider your options, whether it’s declaring it a whiskey-free Thanksgiving, having a kind, but firm conversation with him prior, or keeping him off the guest list. Is it the sheer amount of food you feel you have to prepare for your guests? Name it a pot luck, or, if finances permit, hire a caterer who will also do the clean-up. Happen to be navigating the holiday alone and find the idea of solitude stressful? Turn it into a night to remember—dress up, dine out, and then bed down with a beloved movie or book. In other words, you can’t find solutions for stress without first identifying the problem. Simply naming your anxieties and coming up with an action plan will ease your mind considerably.
2. Bring humor into your holiday.
For years, you may have assembled an elegant affair, complete with candlesticks and cloth napkins, with the hope of impressing your in-laws—only to be disappointed when everything came crashing down (red wine on white carpet, anyone?). And what if your style is a bit…freer, anyway?
Don’t be afraid to embrace it this year. Rewrite the menu as you and your immediate family see fit, whether that’s a Mexican Fiesta that’ll allow you to serve your son’s favorite enchiladas or a meatless meal with a focus on superfoods. Make a playlist that will keep the laidback vibe going, bust out board games that are sure to make your loved ones smile, and offer cupcakes in lieu of traditional pies if that’s what suits your fancy. Or, if Thanksgiving break is the only time you’ll be able to get away for a vacation, by all means, take advantage of it and spend the holiday exploring a new city or relaxing on the beach. Thanksgiving isn’t a spread in Good Housekeeping; rather, it’s honoring the energy, personality, and desires of you and your family, and celebrating the real meaning of the holiday.
3. Learn to delegate.
True, your young adult children may have been away at college all semester, and your spouse works just as hard as you do. But that doesn’t mean that all the holiday tasks fall squarely—and solely—on your shoulders.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, make it clear what holiday recipes or tasks each member of your family (or each member in your coterie of friends) is responsible for. The sense of fairness that will arrive from this alone will mitigate your stress and improve the we-can-do-it attitude of your family.
4. Cope with loss with care.
The holidays are especially challenging for those who have recently endured a loss.
If you’re in the early stages of your grief and find the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving as you always have too painful to consider, think about taking a trip with your spouse, partner, children, or closest friends. The change of scenery might be immensely comforting, while the distance from usual holiday stressors—like endless piles of dishes in the sink—may prove to be revitalizing. Do what feels best to you during this time, and don’t feel obligated to host a big dinner simply because you’ve been doing so for years. Your friends and family will understand—and if they don’t, it will say a lot more about them than you.
5. Build breaks into your holiday.
The holidays are about unwinding and relishing the company of others—not about spending every minute from sunup to sundown polishing silverware and measuring spices in a chaotic kitchen.
Start the day in style with a brisk walk in the park or bike ride, meet up with your single friends for a boisterous brunch, or watch a holiday classic as the turkey is roasting in the oven. The point is, do something that brings you pleasure. It’ll set the tone for the whole holiday.
6. Practice self-care.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving—and throughout the year—make an effort to thank yourself by nourishing your body with healthful foods, getting adequate rest, exercising regularly, and partaking in activities that give you joy and intellectual sustenance. At the same time, you may want to consider an herbal supplement to naturally support lower stress levels (Siberian ginseng, for example, can organically encourage enhanced concentration and immune function, both of which may help you cope with stress). Your body works hard for you all year; Thanksgiving is a keen reminder to treat it lovingly.
7. Honor the meaning of the holiday.
Leading researcher on neuroscience and author of The Buddha’s Brain Rick Hanson suggests that our behaviors—including our response to stress—are determined by three primary factors: the challenges we’ve faced, the vulnerabilities these difficulties grind on, and the inner strength we have for handling these challenges. Further, two thirds of our inner strength is developed over time, and can be cultivated by sharpening our appreciation for what we have. By galvanizing this sense of gratitude through what Dr. Hanson calls “taking in the good”—seeking out pieces of beauty in life, relishing wonderful experiences, remaining present, and being thankful—he believes that we can organically bolster awareness, happiness, and inner serenity.
This Thanksgiving, keep his words in mind and make a commitment to expressing your appreciation. Create a basket of gratitude cards for guests to fill out as they’re grazing on appetizers. Ask a friend or family member to give a casual but affecting speech that highlights the splendor and purpose of the holiday—or do it yourself. Take a few moments throughout the course of the day to look around you and feel—truly feel—all that you have to be genuinely grateful for, whether it’s the warmth of your spouse’s smile, the sun setting, or the vision of fall foliage. Look at all this life around you, and know that it is through sincere thanks that you will be giving back for all that you’ve been provided.