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4 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress

November 16, 2015

Tips from Skyland Trail Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Primary Counselor Amanda Balena, LAMFT, LAPC

Manage Holiday StressIt’s that time of year again, and holiday "hype" is rising. Unfortunately for many of us, so are our stress levels. 

Holidays can be a reminder of negative memories and past family tension. Holiday traditions may require us to spend time with certain people who know how to push our buttons and trigger unresolved difficult emotions. Our schedules are tighter because of longer to-do lists and extra obligations. 

Additionally, the holiday season coincides with cold and flu season. Physical illness may weaken our bodies and make it more difficult to keep up with tasks and responsibilities. Less sunlight and shorter days also make us more vulnerable to depressed moods.

It's no secret that stress left unmanaged can take quite a toll on your physical health, mental health, and even your relationships. As the holiday season swings into full gear, take some time to consider what stressors may sneak up on you and how you can best prepare to fight off holiday stress.

Here are 4 tips to help manage holiday stress:

1. Take care of your body and mind. This can include regular exercise, adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and relaxation practices. You may want to combine some of these habits for optimal self-care. For example, after a workout stretch your muscles while practicing deep breathing techniques. Eat a nutritious meal while practicing mindfulness of the moment. Get to bed at a decent hour and practice progressive muscle relaxation to help you wind down and fall asleep relaxed. You can find more information on how to practice mindfulness at http://www.mindful.org/five-steps-to-mindfulness/

2. Identify your priorities and establish boundaries. Consider what is most important and valuable to you during the holidays and keep those as priority. This will require you to set boundaries around your priorities. Say no to "lesser" priorities, and ask for help when needed. For example, if exercising regularly is a priority, set boundaries around your time to ensure you're able to get to the gym on a consistent basis. Similarly, if you want to spend quality time with loved ones you don't see often, then you may have to say no to other responsibilities. This will keep you from feeling like you're being pulled in all directions. It may also help reduce the risk of feeling resentment or disappointment once the holidays are over.

3. Be realistic. Assess your expectations of yourself and others. Try not to expect the holidays to go perfectly, and realize that you do not have to be perfect. You don't have to prepare an ultra-fancy meal or give the perfect gift to every friend and family member. Practice some relaxation skills (mentioned above) to help clear your mind and determine what's most realistic and what's not. If family conflict has popped up in past holidays, don't expect there to be perfect peace and harmony this year. Instead, plan ahead for your healthy response to conflict that may arise and be prepared to set boundaries if needed.

4. Cultivate gratitude. There is growing research on the benefits of gratitude, particularly on physical, psychological, and relational well-being. An "attitude of gratitude," as Dr. Robert Emmons (a leading researcher on the science of gratitude) calls it, has been linked to greater stress tolerance, increased positive emotions, better sleep, improved physical health, and healthier relationships. It can be beneficial to create a daily habit of remembering what you are thankful for. Keeping a gratitude list at the beginning or end of each day is a great way to do this. If certain well-meaning friends or family members start stretching your patience, remind yourself of why you are thankful to have them in your life. Here are a couple interesting articles on gratitude research and various ways to cultivate gratitude in your life:

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good/

http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude

So as you prepare to minimize stress and enjoy this holiday season, don’t forget to take care of yourself, be mindful of your priorities, maintain a realistic perspective, and develop a habit of thankfulness.

Amanda Balena, LAMFT, LAPC, is a CBT primary counselor in the Skyland Trail residential and day treatment programs. She has associate’s licenses in professional counseling and marriage and family therapy. Amanda received a bachelor’s of science in psychology from the University of Mobile and her master’s in marriage and family therapy from Richmont Graduate University. She is a member of the American Counseling Association.