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Healthy Tips to Cope with Holiday Stress

Even with sunshine and warmth still fresh in our minds, holiday preparation is in full swing. There are decorations to unpack, gifts to buy, gatherings to plan, feasts to prepare, and expectations to meet. Regardless of whether you are responsible for an endless list of tasks, or you are just an attendant of the festivities, the holidays are stressful. When confronted with stressors, it is the human condition to find relief. There are endless methods, and the trick is finding mechanisms that are healthy in terms of improving quality of life and successfully mitigating stress in the short term and the long term. 

What’s the deal with stress? 

Stress is a natural part of life and can be caused by negative or positive events. It can come about during our happiest moments, like having a child, and our lowest moments, like the death of a loved one. It only becomes problematic when stress levels are consistently elevated. Our bodies and minds are made for peaks and valleys of stress, but when our “fight or flight” is activated for a significant amount of time, it takes an immense toll. By living the lifestyle of the modern world, we have gotten accustomed to a constant state of tension, and this is especially evident during the holidays. 

What causes stress around the holidays?

There are many reasons for unusually high stress levels during this time of year, starting with changes in our routine. Humans are truly creatures of habit and, throughout the year, routines have fallen into place for work, school, family, friends, meals, and other components of our daily life. When the holiday season arrives, not only does the actual day of the holiday require a change in routine, but so do the weeks surrounding it. Other sources of added pressure include finances, family dynamics, expectations of others, planning and preparation for hosting or attending events, and negative emotions associated with the holidays caused by past life events. Whatever the reason for the added strain, we all have coping mechanisms to get us by, and some are healthier than others.

How do coping mechanisms work? 

Coping mechanisms allow us to adapt, grow, and persevere, and they are effective for a variety of reasons. There are strategic coping methods that are preemptive and go beyond a specific spike in stress. Some methods act as a temporary boost, giving us short-lived pleasure and providing a much-desired reprieve from our stress and negative feelings. Others provide ways of removing ourselves from our anxiety-filled reality, bestowing the illusion of our responsibilities and ailments temporarily vanishing. While coping mechanisms can serve a necessary, adaptive purpose, it is important to exercise caution, especially during this extra stressful time of year.

What makes a coping mechanism unhealthy? 

There is a difference between coping strategically and coping in the moment, and often that difference is related to your health. The key to distinguishing between unhealthy coping and healthy coping is how it contributes to your overall quality of life. Most of the mechanisms tagged as unhealthy are not detrimental when used infrequently, but they only provide temporary relief. They do not invest in our future mental or physical health. They become a crutch that we continuously rely on, and they can have long-term consequences. Getting a boost from buying yourself something nice is nothing to worry about, and neither is indulging in ice cream after a breakup. Coping in these ways becomes concerning when the spending turns excessive or goes beyond your means, and when the eating leads to consistently poor food choices and unhealthy weight gain. It is important to create coping habits that are beneficial in the moment, and in the future.

What are unhealthy ways of coping? 

One coping method that can be especially dangerous during this time of year is shopping. Who doesn’t love to buy something? Especially when the holidays present the perfect excuse. A boost can also be found in comfort eating. Taking a bite of a warm Christmas cookie or munching on some salty crackers, regardless of how hungry we are, can often keep us content in the midst of the holiday whirlwind. Every purchase and every bite keep us happy just long enough to last us to the next one. Indulging in alcohol and other mind-altering substances is another mechanism of coping with stress. When engaging in festivities, it is common to see spiked eggnog or steaming hot toddies, but for some, the drinking doesn’t stop there. It can be easy to over-indulge. Self-isolation falls in line with this as well. Finding solace in isolation can be a healthy way of regrouping and resetting, but not if holing up away from loved ones and avoiding plans and events becomes a regular occurrence. If any of these methods interfere with a normal, interactive, healthy life, there may be cause to rethink the way you cope with stress.

What are healthy ways of coping? 

When it comes to beneficial ways of coping with stress, there are endless possibilities, but the best approach is to focus on both the mind and the body. Taking care of your physical health improves your mental health; focusing on your mental health makes it easier to take steps to improve your physical health. Focus on the things that can change. Often, it is best to go back to the basics. Make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep each night, keep up on cleanliness and hygiene, drink plenty of water, and pay attention to your nutrition. By meeting your base needs and fueling your body with nutritious foods, you are improving your body’s overall health, and therefore its ability to cope with stress. Regular exercise, whether in the form of weightlifting at the gym or a stroll outside, is also highly recommended. It is great for your body, and it is a natural way to release endorphins. Even a leisurely ten-minute walk a day could do wonders for your body and, in turn, your mind. When it comes to mental health, focusing externally as well as internally can be extremely helpful. Meditation is an excellent way to address mental health internally. It does not need to take the form of sitting rigidly with our legs crossed chanting “ohm” over and over again. Simply retreat somewhere peaceful and isolated, find a comfortable position, and breathe naturally, focusing your mind on your breathing and the movement of your body. Regularly finding time, even for five minutes, to quiet your mind and relax your body does wonders for the stress you experience, and your health as a whole. Healthy external coping can take the form of finding ways to give back and serve others. Find opportunities to volunteer at the local homeless shelter, bake cookies for your neighbor, or pay for the coffee of the person standing in line behind you. Any small, selfless act is an investment in your health, as well as the community and world around you. In short, create daily habits that prepare you to conquer stress in your daily life, and during abnormally stressful times like the holiday season.

The holidays are stressful, but you have the tools to thrive! 

Stressors will always be present, but we all have the ability to cope in effective and beneficial ways. Decipher the healthy coping mechanisms from among the unhealthy, cope preemptively rather than defensively, remember to focus only on what can be changed, and enjoy the holidays!


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