Try These Therapist-Approved Tips to Have a Stress-Free Holiday

Matt Englefield, MBA, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor. He serves as a Manager of a Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic for Inova Behavioral Health Services.

The holidays can be a joyous time of celebration and togetherness. They can also be a minefield of different personalities and worldviews clashing, often in the context of past hurts. Some people choose to gather with family, and some of these interactions may be challenging. Others choose to celebrate the holidays with friends, which may be less likely to be hurtful but will still include complex interpersonal dynamics. And still others may be spending the holidays alone, which can be equally challenging, although for different reasons.

No matter how you’re celebrating the holidays, or who you’re celebrating with, these seven tips and tools can help you minimize stress. Try them this year for a lower-stress holiday season.

Set an intention ahead of time.

An intention is similar to a goal, but it’s different in that it focuses on how you want to feel, not on a future action or achievement. Setting an intention ahead of a holiday gathering can help you feel more in control and can give you a sense of purpose that grounds your emotions during the visit. Intention-setting also gives you an opportunity to visualize and model calm and peaceful behavior, which can be very helpful when things get tense.

Build in buffers on either side of the get-together.

For example, you could take 15 minutes in your car on either side of the holiday gathering to meditate, listen to music, or to talk with a friend. This practice can help you go into the visit with a calm and centered mind, and it can help you decompress after the visit as well, providing a transition from the holiday gathering back into your day-to-day life.

Get active and go outside.

Take advantage of the mood-boosting benefits of exercise or outdoor activities. You could go ice skating, take a walk, head out on a hike, or spend an hour at the gym. Being in sunlight and in nature helps improve mood and can enhance mental well-being. Exercise releases endorphins and gives our brains a boost of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. You can also take a break from a holiday trip by heading to a coffee shop or bookstore for a couple of hours to reset and get a calming boost.

Be aware of common pitfalls.

There are certain habits that can make it harder to keep a calm and level outlook – and the holidays are full of opportunities to fall into those habits. Three of the biggest are:

  • Eating too much
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Engaging in political or religious discussions

The more you can avoid these common pitfalls, the better your chances of avoiding stressful or upsetting interactions.

Recharge your battery.

It’s important to think through ways to recharge. Sometimes, holiday gatherings take place in a series of nonstop group settings. That can be stressful for anyone, no matter their personalities:

  • If you’re an introvert, you will need to build quiet alone time into the holiday schedule to be at your best. Take time each day to read, meditate or even take a nap.
  • If you’re an extrovert, you still need recharge time. Perhaps calling or video chatting with a friend or loved one back home would give you strength.

Keep up with your good habits.

The holidays can wreak havoc on our established positive habits. If you’re visiting family or friends in another place, it can be hard to keep up with your exercise, sleep, or spiritual practices. And whether you’re with others or by yourself, the holidays can tempt many people to take a break from exercise, eating right, or keeping alcohol use in moderation. Take care of yourself by making space in the schedule for your healthy habits.

Consider radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is an approach to a stressful dynamic in which you stop expecting situations and people to be different than they are and let go, releasing the negativity and bitterness you’ve felt in the past when things aren’t the way you think they should be. In the setting of a holiday gathering, it can be helpful to have realistic expectations of the trip. Try to minimize your expectations, which may not match the reality of the past, present, or future. When you stop trying to change those around you, it can result in much less stress and greater satisfaction.

Together, these seven tips form a positive set of skills or habits you can employ, no matter what your family or relationship situation is. Good luck, and happy holidays!

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