20 Steps to Less Holiday Stress

Posted on November 12th, 2014 by Seth Nickinson

Last winter we published a pretty comprehensive guide to “Activate Your Holidays.” It included all the areas Project ACT cares about – body, diet, family, etc. This year, at the request of many, we are focusing specifically on STRESS. Below, a collection of tips on how to reduce it this holiday season.

Don’t try them all: just pick one or two that resonate, and let the anxiety start to dissipate.

1. Take Time For You

Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm, whether that’s knitting, hiking, or sweeping the driveway.

Northern Lights

2. Relax – you won’t gain 10 pounds

The average person gains only about a pound during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. So while you don’t want to indulge recklessley, you don’t have to be a fanatic, either. According to a Gallup poll, the percentage of people who exercise regularly is lower in December than any other time of the year. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a workout – just commit to get back on track as soon as you can. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology notes that people who had an attitude of forgiveness and self-compassion after one high-calorie setback were less likely to give up on their holiday food plan and just starting bingeing. So if you lose control with a dish of chocolates, don’t think, “I’ve blown it. Might as well move on to the eggnog.” Just forgive yourself for the truffles.

Real Simple Healthy Holiday Tips

3. Watch the Wallet

Holiday stress becomes worse for many people when they spend money they don’t have. Facing big bills later can be a real anxiety trigger. Have a plan with your family about how you want to handle gift-giving. Set a budget, and stick to it. Try inexpensive ways to show you care: Buy books personalized by topic. Write a thoughtful note. Craft small gifts. Or schedule a coffee or dinner with friends to enjoy one another’s company. But most importantly, remember that the true spirit of the holidays is in spending quality time with family and friends, sharing laughter and making memories.

PBS’ “Your Life, Your Money”


4. Take Social Media with a Grain of Salt

You’ve seen the status updates: “Hope Santa can find us in Cancun” or “Mmm, homemade cider, husband cleaning gutters, kids making cookies, life is good.” And you know what? Those people have bad days, too. Remember: Most people put their best self forward on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t compare your life with those dreamy-sounding posts.


5. Sunlight, Feel Bright

Getting outdoors is one of the best ways to combat winter blues. Research shows that lack of vitamin D, which comes from exposure to the sun, is one cause of minor depression at this time of year. So bundle up and get outside. Take a walk around the block before work, stroll around the building for 10 minutes at lunch, or head to the park with your friend, partner, dog, or kids on the weekend.

Vitamin D Council

6. Schedule Realistically

Simplify holiday commitments. Discuss with your family which traditions are most important to you and to them; It’s okay to re-evaluate past traditions. You do not have to attend every single holiday party. Don’t over-schedule yourself. Allow enough time to relax and recover after visiting with others. Avoid the seasonal time crunch by making plans to visit some friends and family in early 2015.

7.  Make a single change, like don’t send cards

Take one task that drives you crazy during the holidays and tackle it in a new way. A fresh approach just might make a difference. For example, if you dread having to send out holiday cards, enlist your husband and split the list, or try a digital card, or just make phone calls.

Paperless Post

8. Get Sleep, Not Hangovers

Alcohol might make you conk out quicker, but it can also shorten the time you spend in deeper stages of sleep and cause you to wake up during the night. Even though you don’t realize you woke up, you can miss out on restorative rest. Put the champagne flute or your favorite glass aside a few hours before bedtime. Caffeine stimulates the brain, so steer clear of that after-dinner cup of coffee, too.

alka seltzer

9. Pack Smart

Tuck everyone’s sleepwear and toothbrushes in one easy-to-reach bag. That first night when you arrive at Grandma’s house or another destination, you won’t be fumbling through every suitcase before bedtime.


dopp kit

10. Drink Up (H20)

Our bodies are approximately 60-70% water. The brain is about 85% water. Every organ in our body needs water to run properly. So if you are dehydrated, your body and mind just can’t run well. Research shows that being just a little bit dehydrated can boost levels of the hormone cortisol, indicating to your system that you are stressed. Then, when you are stressed, your heart rate is up and you are breathing more heavily, so you lose fluids. And when you are stressed, you often forget to eat and drink, so the situation just becomes worse. If you get to the point where you actively feel thirsty, you definitely need some water. Drink two 8 oz. glasses right then and there. And then tune in to how your body feels. Notice how a little alertness might come back without caffeine, a little energy without a snack. Water really is a miraculous substance.

Easy Ways to Get Enough Water Each Day

Recipes for fruit- and herb-infused “spa water”


11. Listen to Something Soothing

There are definitely more calming sounds than family arguing or your boss pressing for a pre-vacation deadline. And the Christmas music on rotation can get grating for even the most festive among us! Put on some music that always calms you down, whether it’s classical or Enya. Or even better, try an mp3 of a guided meditation or just peaceful sounds.

Collection of Audio Meditations and Visualizations

12. Run Around with the Kids

If all the adults are getting high-strung, drunk, and just circling the food table at a festive gathering, spend time with the children. Kids are more likely than adults to be doing something active and laughing. Plus you get to be that helpful adult keeping an eye on the kids. Join their touch football game or jumping in piles of leaves, or just the little ones’ playing with toys on the floor. Their energy and playfulness can help distract you from worry and unhealthy food.

15 Outdoor Games that Make You Miss Being a Kid

kids jumping into leaves

13. Depression Not Required

Contrary to popular belief, depression isn’t more common during the holidays. In fact, suicide rates in the United States are actually lowest in December, according to the CDC. All the social interaction can have a happiness-supporting effect. But that doesn’t mean that you’re immune to the holiday blues. Make plans with friends if you are missing family who is far away. Opt out of events if you are feeling too stressed. Schedule some positive experiences for January that you can look forward to. Taking care of yourself is the most important gift to everyone in your life.

Mayo Clinic “Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping”

Cigna Depression Self-Assessment

14.   Beware Holiday Heart: don’t start drinking now

Around Christmas and New Year’s, emergency departments brace for a rise in cases of “holiday heart syndrome.” These are isolated atrial fibrillations actually more common in people who aren’t usually heavy drinkers but imbibe in excess for a short time. It feels like your heart is racing out of your chest. Although it’s mainly attributed to alcohol, add to the mix caffeine, excessive amounts of food, and lack of sleep, and you have the perfect recipe for cardiac incidents.

American Heart Association Holiday Healthy Eating Guide

15. Plan a post-meal walk

As soon as you arrive at your Thanksgiving celebration or other big gathering, announce that you plan to take a walk after the meal. Most likely, some of your family and friends will want to join you. Once you get a few people on board, it’ll be tough to bail out.  A brisk walk will help you burn some calories and likely put you in the right mindset to deal with all the family, friend, or officemate drama.

family walk

16. Do 5 Minutes of De-Stress

There are amazingly simple ways to clear your mind and get centered.  These days, there are some super slick websites and Apps, as well as easy-to-follow online videos, that will provide you everything from nature sounds to a quick meditation.

Stress Reduction Tools on Project ACT

Holiday Tapping Meditation

17. Have Sex

You probably already know that sex is a great tension reliever, but have you officially thought of it as a stress-relieving practice? Perhaps you should. The physical benefits of sex are numerous, and most of them work very well toward relieving stress. Sex releases feel-good hormones, like oxytocin. People who have more sex have lower stress-related blood pressure and take fewer sick days. You don’t need to freak out if you aren’t currently having sex. First step: more kissing, hugging and cuddling. Indeed, simply holding hands can start to alleviate stress.

5 Weeks to More Sex, Less Stress

How to Get in the Mood When You’re Stressed

18. Check In With Your Body

Often, one of the experiences of stress is an vicious loop, where we just keep thinking the same thing. One way out of this is to tune in to our bodies. Doing so can also help us identify how we are being affected by stress. A “body scan” is a great way to do this. Basically, you mentally scan your body to get a sense of how it is doing. Lie on your back, or sit with your feet on the floor. Start at your toes and work your way up to your scalp, noticing how  your body feels.

8-minute body scan “crash course” from NPR

20 Minute Body Scan – MP3

19. Pack Travel Snacks: You always pack an extra pair of underwear in your carry-on, so why not some extra healthy snacks too? Travel delays and layovers often result in too many airport meals, roadside fast food stops, or just rushed meals. Plan for a full day of travel like any other full day. Although liquids are restricted on planes, most foods can be taken through security, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Consider salads in tupperware, energy bars, crackers and hummus, and homemade sandwiches. Raw fruits and vegetables are also easy to pack and carry anywhere.

cut veggies

Image credit: ModernHealthyMom.com

20. Laugh It Off

Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). It also increases the level of positive endorphins and leads to a stronger immune system.  Laughter brings the focus away from anger, guilt and negative emotions in a more beneficial way than other distractions. But best of all? It’s contagious in the best way. Studies suggest that healthy children may laugh as much as 400 times per day, but adults tend to laugh only 15 times per day. Fortunately, the holiday season is full of goofy movies, seasonal comedy routines, silly YouTube videos, and child-like decoration displays. Plus, people in ugly sweaters. So treat yourself to a laugh.

Laughter is the Best Medicine

elf will ferrell