Dec. 13, 2022

How to de-stress the holidays

Bickering relatives. Lengthy lineups. Sky-high grocery bills. Relaxing with the people you love is what the holidays should be about — but how do you ensure that happens?
De-Stressing the Holidays
Unpredictability, uncontrollability and salience are the three factors that cause our stress levels to rise

Just Googling the term “holiday stress” can be stressful. With some 265,000,000 results, it’s obviously a very real physical and psychological state, spurred on by our brain’s prefrontal cortex that flips into overdrive thanks to an external circumstance that we can’t completely control. Between the food prep and shopping marathons as well as age-old traditions and mega guest lists, it’s tough to do what we vow every year — scale back our expectations and simplify.

But we can try, suggests psychologist and UCalgary professor Dr. Keith Dobson, PhD. He points out that holiday-stress levels during the pandemic actually dropped as people were forced to lower their expectations. With the return to a somewhat “normal” holiday period, experts are now predicting that our collective levels of anxiety, stress and brain fatigue are also returning to pre-pandemic times — another reason to try to control our rising levels of adrenalin and cortisol. They're what leaves our brains and bodies in a stressed state.

As for the actual psychology of stress, Dobson explains there are three key factors that ratchet up our stress levels. “These are unpredictability (the more unpredictable something is, the more we track it and get worried), uncontrollability (even if we know something stressful is coming and we know exactly what it is, we get more stressed if we have no effective way to respond to it), and salience (or importance; the more important something is to us the more we will attend to it and get stressed). 

"And major holidays often have all three elements; no wonder we tend to get stressed in the run-up to the holidays."

Now that we know this — is there anything we can do to actually take the stress out of the holidays? Turns out there is, suggest Dobson and Dr. Scott Patten, MD, PhD, professor of community health sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Think about the big picture. Ask yourself what the season means to you and what you want to get out of it, suggests Dobson.  

“For some, it means a quiet time and if that’s really what you want to do then protect that time and your privacy. If you want to go cross-country skiing, then go do that.” If you want to “party like it’s 1999,” then plan for the morning after! Or, as my fitness instructor frequently says, “be sure you do you!”

Watch expectations. Don’t fall prey to all the shopping-mall hype that suggests you need to buy your love a diamond ring. “Most of us can’t afford it,” says Dobson.

Instead, “have an open and frank discussion with the important people in your life about gifts." He adds that in his life “what works for us is a gift exchange, which means we are not buying for every family member. Yes, we still buy for all our grandchildren but no longer do we shop for all the adults.”

Set a budget. Be realistic with yourself about what is reasonable.

Remember that a lot of people are struggling because of the economic downturn and inflation. Perhaps whittle down your gift list and strike those on the periphery such as your mailman, co-workers and neighbours.

Plan ahead. Dobson’s family sets aside a day in November to draw one family member’s name for their gift exchange. If that time has passed for you, choose a theme for last-minute gifts such as books, food, chocolate, socks, kitchen gadgets, movie tickets — something that allows you to pick up everything from one store. 

Dobson also suggests, “Be honest with yourself; share your expectations with others and even though it’s difficult; learn to say ‘no.’” Writing grocery lists, pulling together recipes and making a plan the evening before any event is a huge time-saver for most. Patten endorses these tips and adds, “Have realistic expectations and try not to dwell too much on imperfections and/or failures.”

Maintain healthy habits. Rich food, more alcohol and late-night consumption of both can throw your sleep off and create havoc with your central nervous system. Monitor your consumption of carbs, sweets and booze and ingest them earlier in the day, if you can. Don’t scrap your exercise regime once the holidays begin.

Stress can be viewed as one of the body’s attempts to adapt to change, explains Patten. “The holiday season is one that is characterized by a lot of change, including altered patterns of activity, eating and sleeping. Although it may be difficult to do, try to maintain regular physical activity and a healthy diet.”

Beware of warning signs. When the body’s stress systems are activated, physiologic functions such as sleep and appetite are likely to be affected, adds Patten.

“People may feel anxious, fatigued, and/or depressed. There are often physical changes too, such as gastrointestinal symptoms, or painful symptoms such as headaches.”

Practise self-care. For many, one of the greatest joys of the holiday season is the social aspect — something many of us have craved for the past two years. Nevertheless, operating in overdrive is exhausting so be sure to carve out some free time for yourself, every day. Go for a walk, a yoga class, meditate, read a book, breathe (deeply) . . . do something quiet that’s just for you!

If you can’t get your stress under control, seek professional help. Contact your physician or a local mental health professional, distress centre or suicide hotline. In Calgary, you can call the Distress Centre at 403-266-1601 or 2-1-1 to access an entire network of community services or 8-1-1 for Alberta Health Services. If you work at the University of Calgary, access a mental-health consultant at 403-220-2918 before Dec. 22 (this office is closed from Dec. 23 to Jan. 1).