Letting go of perfection is priority number one.
There seem to be two versions of the holidays: One portrays this time of year as the happiest, while the second is a whirlwind of strained budgets and family fights. Nearly 70% of us are stressed during the season, according to the American Psychological Association. “The holidays bring together almost all of our pressures into one short period of time,” says Tarane Sondoozi, Psy.D., a psychologist serving as an employee assistance provider at Scripps Health in San Diego. But it is possible to sidestep the stress— you just need real-world solutions, and you’ll find them here.
Trying to do it all
It’s become more difficult to write off the idyllic holiday as unrealistic when social media delivers us photos of friends’ and bloggers’ seemingly impeccable celebrations. In fact, one survey found that 44% of people strive for holiday perfection, and 32% end up disappointed.
Holiday stress strategy: Start breaking some traditions. “When it comes to decorating, giving gifts, and upholding traditions, women in particular often feel like they have to do everything,” says Pamela Regan, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, Los Angeles. But do you? Keep your most cherished traditions, like caroling or cooking latkes, and simplify the rest. “Creating newer, easier traditions takes the pressure off of how things should be,” says Regan. Decorate the living room rather than the whole house, and invite close friends over for tea rather than hosting a party. You never know which new customs will stick around for generations to come.
A mile-long gift list
There’s so much stress around gift-giving: finding the perfect presents for family, plus the murky gray areas—what should you give your daughter’s dance teacher? Should all of your neighbors get a present?
When eBay researchers strapped biometric devices to 100 people as they shopped for holiday gifts, the participants’ heart rates jumped 33% and they felt fatigued after 32 minutes. It’s no wonder a Pew Research Center survey found that only 1% of Americans list shopping as their favorite holiday activity.
Holiday stress strategy: Organize your shopping into manageable categories. To make it less overwhelming, sort through who you’re buying gifts for and research what you’d like to get each person before leaving the house, says Sara Skirboll, a shopping and trends expert for RetailMeNot. Next, plan three to five different shopping outings rather than one long day of spending. “Visit the mall one afternoon and get everything you need there, hit a boutique store another day, and then plan to spend, say, three different shopping sessions online,” Skirboll says. This way, you can tackle your gift list without feeling exasperated and unorganized by the end of a long day (and, as an extra perk, you’ll have fewer bags to carry!).
And no matter where you end up shopping, prep yourself for the chaos you’ll encounter. “You may need to remind yourself that this time of year requires a little extra patience,” says Scott Bea, Psy.D., a practitioner of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy at the Cleveland Clinic. “Try to observe others without judgment, and know that everyone else is out there for the same reason you are—to have a happy holiday.”
Your budget is stretched
Once you’ve organized your shopping strategy, the next step is paying for all those gifts—not to mention all the decorations, food, and travel costs that come with the season. One Coinstar survey of 2,000 Americans found that 65% of people set a holiday budget, but 77% expect to exceed that budget. That’s stress waiting to happen.
Holiday stress strategy: Gently reshape expectations. That means your own and other people’s. Determine ahead of time how much you’ll spend on each person you’re giving a gift to, says Skirboll. “With groups of friends, you can suggest a gift exchange in which every person draws a name and gives a gift only to that person,” she says. “And remember, homemade presents are often more cherished than store-bought ones, and much less expensive.” (See right for easy ideas.) When it comes to your children’s wish lists, if what they want is too expensive, be caring but honest about it. This can be a good lesson for them in managing expectations. You can also use this as an opportunity to highlight the spirit of the season by helping them make small gifts for others, Skirboll suggests.
To cut down on travel expenses, consider flying on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve; since most people travel before or after these days, lower demand means airfare discounts. You may also save by renting a car through Costco—its travel site generally has better deals than you’ll find at the airport.
An overpacked schedule
Not only do you have a ton to do, but you’re likely trying to do it all at once. “Your mental health is like a bank account,” says Lisa Hardesty, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Mayo Clinic Health System. “This time of year, most people have too many withdrawals that stretch us thin.”
Holiday stress strategy: Finally practice mindfulness. You’ll actually feel more efficient if you do: Research shows that multitasking can reduce productivity by 40%. See below to get started, and give yourself permission to find time for yourself if there’s still too much to do. Sondoozi recommends letting your loved ones down gently by declining requests while offering a more manageable alternative. For instance: “I’m touched you wanted to include me at your party, but this weekend is packed for me. What if we celebrate by walking around the lake next week with hot cocoa?” If you can’t fit everything in, send a handwritten note or a bottle of wine ahead of time to let the hosts know you’re still thinking of them.
Perhaps you’re not close with your family or you still feel the aching absence of your mother, who passed away.
Holiday stress strategy: Find time to volunteer. A study in the Journals of Gerontologyfound that recent widows who started volunteering at least two hours per week lowered their feelings of isolation to a level similar to married people who volunteered. “Taking time to help others gets you out of the house, provides a shift in perspective, and forces you to interact with others,” says Adam Fried, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Phoenix.
In fact, simply lending a hand to a relative, friend, or even a stranger has its benefits, and research shows it can mitigate the impact of stress. Reach out and ask someone if he or she could use help or company—or simply invite the person to your own celebrations. Most people don’t make their loneliness known, but you can be the one to make it better.
You have the uncle who shouts about politics across the dinner table, and the cousin who returns every kind gesture with a complaint. Although nearly 90% of Americans plan to spend the holidays with extended family or friends, Consumer Reports data shows that 33% dread political conversations with them and 16% don’t want to host.
Holiday stress strategy: give yourself a new script. Before a family reunion, think about how you’ll answer possible questions, says Regan. This way, you won’t be stunned when you’re hit with an inquiry you’d rather not answer (“Do you think you’ll ever remarry?” “How much did you pay for your new house?”). If things get out of control, put your foot down by saying, “I love you, but let’s not discuss this right now,” recommends Judith Orloff, M.D., a UCLA psychiatrist and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide.