by Heidi Hanna, PhD, FAIS

Holiday stress happens because of unrealistic expectations, feeling overwhelmed or out of control, and losing site of what matters most to us. The good news is that stress can be like an internal GPS, shining light on course corrections to get us back on track. Stress is not good or bad, but rather a sense we have when something is not as it should be. We only feel stress when something that matters to us is at stake, so it turns out that stressing can be one of our greatest blessings if we take time to pay attention and adjust.

The most important part of managing stress is to first understand what it really is. Stress is simple a stimulus for change. We experience stress when the demand on our energy is greater than our capacity, and that can trigger both positive and negative adaptive responses depending on our perspective. There are a lot of ways to define stress (link to redefining stress blog), and how you define it will actually determine your experience, so choose wisely. Research has demonstrated that when people see stress as health-promoting stimulation (energy) instead of system-wide breakdown (anxiety), the physiological response is dramatically different. Energy helps our brain and body work better, while anxiety causes brain fog and inflammation that leads to excess wear and tear on our system, hinders our ability to problem solve, and speeds up the development of what’s already going wrong.

The holiday season is a particularly stressful time for most people for many reasons. Perhaps the most fundamental is that decades of marketing has told us we’re supposed to be filled with the magic of a Hallmark card or peaceful Clydesdale trot through the snow, setting expectations that are seriously out of reach. In fact, if we can laugh at these unrealistic models of what the holidays are supposed to look like we can immediately reduce stress hormones and see more clearly how to create an experience that is aligned with what matters most to us. (Tip: create your own picture of what you want the holiday season to look like and feel like, spend a few minutes each morning reflecting on what’s most important to you, and then make a concrete plan to help you reach your own unique outcome.)

Beyond our perceptions of not being or having enough, stress is primarily affected by our sense of control. When we believe we have the ability to navigate challenges and have the resources to do so effectively, stress is a stimulus for positive growth, seen as an adventure. If we try to be all things to all people, are careless about over committing or don’t build in adequate time to recharge our own battery, we can’t possibly keep up. Stress hormones become our fuel to get things done, and we quickly find ourselves going through the motions like we’re putting out fires instead of enjoying the time with friends and family. Instead of gratitude we feel resentment and irritability, frustrated by our inability to be in the present moment. (Tip: resist the rush, know that if you’re going to bring your best energy to the time you have you have to limit your commitments, get comfortable with saying you’re not available.)

In order to accomplish a shift in seasonal stress, it’s critical that you have some support. Find an accountability partner who you can work with to come up with a clear pathway for navigating the holidays with ease. Talk about your goals for being fully engaged in what matters most to you, and then check in regularly to make sure you’re taking the necessary steps. Studies have clearly shown that no matter how difficult the climb we’re facing, when we have social support we perceive the obstacles as being more manageable, which immediately decreases our stress response and provides us with the mental clarity and emotional resilience to adapt effectively. (Tip: be pro-active by talking about your goals for the holiday season with your closest support person, check-in regularly, and be willing to slow down and refocus regularly.)

Create a clear picture of how you want to feel this holiday season. If it’s a success, how will you know? Imagine yourself engaging with friends and family in a way that energizes you and gives you a sense of peaceful fulfillment. What specifically will it take for you to have that experience? Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and ask your heart what matters most to you. Then, from a more aligned perspective, ask what you need to do to get there. Journal about it, and get as clear as you can on the daily steps you will need to take. Here are a few nudges to fuel your journey.

1. Recharge regularly. Prioritize sleep and create relaxing bedtime rituals to quiet your mind and rest your body. Eat something every 3-4 hours during the day and focus on foods that are whole, natural, and health promoting as much as possible. When you do indulge, eat slowly and mindfully to enjoy the experience. Move as often as you can, and build in physical activity throughout the day to keep energy up and stress hormones down.

2. Rethink your stress. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed, take time to pause and reflect on what adjustments can be made to create a sense of ease. Use stress as a guiding light to bring you back to what’s most important. Say no more, be present in the moment, and let go of unrealistic expectations.

3. Redesign your routine. Don’t take any action until you’ve clarified the energy you wan to bring to the day. Think about who you want to be before you think about what you need to do. Build in time throughout the day to come back to this peaceful, intentional place of reflection. Remind yourself that it’s not about the time you have but the energy you bring to that time that is most important.