Experts Offer Advice for Reducing Holiday Stress

Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor
Published Online: Thursday, December 15, 2011
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Overly high expectations for the holidays relating to events, family relationships, gifts, and food can trigger anxiety and even depression, and self-care often gets left by the wayside, according to psychiatrists at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, who offer tips for handling holiday stress.

Mallay Occhiogrosso, MD, cautions individuals to dial down the unrealistic ‘Hallmark holiday’ fantasies and prioritize self-care.

Another psychiatrist, Eric Marcus, MD, noted that “During the holidays, our lives become even more stressful as we try to juggle our usual responsibilities with extra holiday preparation and complicated family dynamics.”

Drs. Occhiogrosso and Marcus have provided the following advice to help individuals keep holiday stress to a minimum:
  • Build self-care into your schedule. If you have family difficulties, try to plan some time with friends. If you feel isolated, seek out the support of your community, religious, or social services. If you feel lonely, you might consider volunteering your time at a local organization such as a food bank.
  • Self-care can be simple. Fifteen minutes of “alone time” can help you take a breather and be better prepared to handle tasks. Try taking a brisk walk around the block or engaging in some other outdoor activity. Exercise is a great stress reliever, and a daily dose of winter sunlight can dramatically improve your mood.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Prioritize the events that matter the most to you and your family. Understand that you can’t do everything; choose the things that you can accomplish and enjoy. Get input from your family and friends about what it is they would really enjoy doing this holiday. You may find that your expectations are higher than everyone around you.
  • For gift shopping, it’s the thought that counts. Don’t let competitiveness, guilt, and perfectionism send you on too many shopping trips. Create a holiday shopping budget and stick to it so that holiday bills don’t linger into next year.
  • Simplify. Don’t bake 20 different types of cookies unless you enjoy it. You and your family may enjoy fewer cookies but more time together. You may also try asking for help. Getting your family and friends involved in the holiday preparations may alleviate the stress of doing it all on your own.
  • Remember that family time can be both wonderful and anxiety-provoking. Sometimes, expectations for reunions are too high, resulting in disappointment and frustration. Try to be realistic. Accept your family members and friends as they are and set aside grievances for a more appropriate time.
  • Celebrate the memories of loved ones no longer here. Holidays can also be stressful as we confront the memories of those who have passed. This can be a normal part of the holiday experience and should be openly discussed and celebrated.
  • Plan your time so that you take care of several errands on one trip, which can give you more time to spend doing the things that you really want to do. Set aside specific days for shopping, cooking, and visiting friends. You may also want to plan your menu in advance and make one big shopping trip.
  • Take some time to think about what the holiday really means to you and your family. Time together, religious observances, and reflection on your life and future goals can help keep things in perspective.
  • If you find that your depressed mood lingers, consider getting input from a mental health professional. Rates of anxiety and depression peak during the holidays; you don’t have to suffer unnecessarily. Help is available.
Finally, remember that doing less may help you to enjoy the season more, noted Drs. Occhiogrosso and Marcus.

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