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Coping with Holiday Stress

Managing stress for a joyful holiday

Coping with holiday stress

Santa Claus has a major toy building operation to oversee at the North Pole and an impossible delivery schedule to keep. Still, Kris Kringle finds a way to remain jolly.

Perhaps that's because he uses one of the tips Ira Halper, MD, director of the Cognitive Therapy Center in the Department of Psychiatry at Rush, recommends for coping with holiday stress. Santa Claus makes a list — and even checks it twice — to keep track of who's naughty and nice.

Lists are a great way for any of us to stay organized while contending with last-minute shopping, crowds, holiday travel, financial strain and dysfunctional family dynamics.

With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it's easy for even the most jovial among us to become frazzled. And there is no shortage of negative ways to cope: Alcohol is plentiful and overeating is easy. But positive ways to manage stress aren't difficult to implement, either, so Halper recommends giving the following a try:

Stay organized.

To help you keep track of your many tasks, make an "ABC" list:

  • "A" consists of tasks that must get done today
  • "B" goals are to be done within two or three days
  • "C" goals should be completed within a week 

Having a set of clear goals will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed, which can happen if you suddenly forget something on a schedule that only exists in your head.

Try relaxation techniques.

  • Diaphragmatic breathing — While in a comfortable position, slowly inhale through your nose while focusing on expanding the abdomen rather than the chest. Then slowly exhale through your mouth and repeat the process for 10 minutes. Also, be aware of your breathing throughout the day. 
  • Muscle relaxation — Tense a muscle group and hold for eight to 10 seconds before releasing. Apply this to all major muscle groups. Releasing the tension brings a feeling of relaxation. With practice, you can use this technique after taking several slow, relaxed breaths whenever you notice an onset of physical tension.

Reframe your thoughts.

"If you can't afford to host an expensive meal, are family and friends really going to think poorly of you? Often, the realization that your worst nightmare isn't likely to come true is enough to alleviate the stress," Halper says. "And if somebody does think poorly of you because there isn't an elaborate spread, is that person really a good friend?"

Being mindful of your thoughts can be a powerful tool for regulating your mood. Often, negative thinking is unfounded.

If a negative event does occur, use the same type of self-talk to put it in perspective. If you dread seeing your in-laws every year and they validate that feeling with their behavior, remind yourself that you only have control over your own actions, their behavior is a reflection of themselves and not you, and the event won't last forever. 

It's a technique that can take some practice, and a cognitive-behavioral therapist such as Halper can help if you're finding it tough to manage stress on your own and are feeling overwhelmed. It can be helpful for acute or chronic stress.

Stress isn't always bad — it can motivate you to meet deadlines or respond to challenges. But all too often stress causes physical or emotional fallout — from upset stomachs to sleepless nights. 

Everyone gets angry sometimes. But if you're having trouble managing your anger, you may be putting your health at risk — not to mention affecting your relationships and job. A clinical psychologist at Rush offers advice to help you stay in control when you're seeing red. 

In addition to bringing joy, the holiday season can also bring challenges, particularly for older adults and their caregivers. Here, a clinical psychologist who specializes in geriatric issues talks about these issues — and shares strategies for dealing with them.