'Tis the season... for stress management

The increased demands of the holidays can lead to elevated stress. Here are a few tips on how to lower stress so you can make the most of the season. 

A woman and baby bake in a brightly-lit kitchen.

According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of women report heightened stress during the holidays. Less free time, money concerns, and increased family, work and social obligations are some of the many factors that can contribute to this seasonal rise in stress.

“For so many people, the holidays are about expectations,” says Sarah Owens, M.S.W., LCSW, who provides counseling at the Center for Women’s Health. “There’s the stress of traveling, cooking, entertaining, gathering. But, it’s also about expecting everything to go beautifully, and then sometimes having to deal with the fact that we are imperfect human beings.” 

Over the years, Owens has noticed a trend of increased stress from October through January. This year, she says the root of that stress looks a little different. 

“People may still not be gathering as much,” says Owens, “That may be even more stressful. Many are coming back for family traditions after being out of practice. It’s a kind of re-entry stress.” 

Owens has a few recommendations to help lower stress during this hectic time of year. 

Get outside

When feeling overwhelmed, fresh air and nature can help. Owens recommends getting outside three times per day, rain or shine (or cold!) for at least a few minutes. Take some deep breaths and look at your surroundings. 

“I like to say, ‘Take a smoke break without the cigarette,’” says Owens. “Disrupt what you are doing. Go outside. Inhale, exhale.” 

Take good care of your body

Stress can cause sleep difficulties. Some may turn to comfort eating. This can lead to a cycle that snowballs. It is important to tune in to your body and feed it what it needs. Healthy foods and plenty of water, for one, but also a good amount of both rest and movement. 

Slow down, be aware

Informal mindfulness helps promote feelings of peace and calm. Slowing down does not mean stopping altogether. Instead, Owens cites an example as simple as noticing a flower while on a walk as a way to practice mindfulness in everyday life. 

Find a sensory focus

Another way to slow down and increase awareness is to focus on one sensory experience at a time. For example, when someone is cooking a meal, take 30-60 seconds to take in the different smells around you. Other options include taking some time to appreciate the taste of something new or focusing on the sounds in your environment for a solid minute. 

Incorporate daily reading or journaling

Some may use daily inspirational quotes. Others may prefer poetry, prayer or bullet journaling. Incorporating a daily practice that provides a short, manageable moment of reflection can improve stress management during the busy holiday season (and beyond). 

Set boundaries

Difficult topics during divisive times can bring additional stress to the table. It may be beneficial when gathering with family or friends – especially if it has been a long time – to set some ground rules. A candid conversation about how to keep the peace can make time together less stressful. 

Set limits and ask for help

Sometimes, it can be difficult to ask for help or to decline an invitation to another obligation. However, both can help ease the added stress that can surface during the holidays. 

“Re-frame it and let others know the benefits. Point out, ‘If I say no now and I rest, I will be able to do X with you later,’” says Owens. “When we think of it that way, we can see it differently.”