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Tips for coping with a stressful holiday season

Here’s how to make the holiday season less stressful whether you’ve lost a loved one or are overwhelmed with obligations.

Here’s how to make the holiday season less stressful whether you’ve lost a loved one or are overwhelmed with obligations.
Here’s how to make the holiday season less stressful whether you’ve lost a loved one or are overwhelmed with obligations.Read moreiStock (custom credit) / iStock

It’s the final stretch of the holiday season, and you may be feeling burnt out. Between holiday gatherings, prepping meals, purchasing gifts, and making sure your children feel the magic of the season, there is little time left for you.

Additional stressors may include financial strain, painful memories, and feelings of loneliness or grief after the loss of a loved one. All of this can make the holidays feel like a chore—but you’re not alone in feeling this way. Things like planning ahead, taking control, and engaging in self-care can help you get through the next few weeks.

How can you engage in self-care?

  1. Find time for yourself. Spending just 15-20 minutes alone can reduce stress. Do something you enjoy such as reading a book, listening to music, or journaling.

  2. Restore inner-calm by breathing deeply, meditating, and noticing things you are thankful for.

  3. Exercise. The release of endorphins can help reduces stress and anxiety.

  4. Plan ahead—knowing what to expect can alleviate stress. For example, shopping online may provide relief from hectic malls.

  5. Set a budget and stick to it. Going beyond your means can make that holiday stress spill into January as well.

  6. Honor your own needs, even if that means saying ‘no’ to others. Don’t get caught up in what others expect of you. You are not obligated to attend an event that will make you anxious or upset.

  7. Manage your expectations. Accept others for who they are, even if they have hurt you in the past, or do not live up to your expectations.

  8. Create new traditions. This may be with friends rather than family. Do what you can to make positive memories.

  9. Communicate what you need and be with those who support you and will accept you as you are.

  10. Drive yourself to holiday events so you can leave if you become uncomfortable.

  11. Maintain a healthy diet. Large amounts of sugar can impact your mood. Don’t skip a meal in anticipation of holiday treats later.

  12. Get plenty of sleep. All things are better handled when we are well-rested.

  13. Stay off of social media if seeing others in their holiday spirit makes you feel more lonely or depressed. Remember: perfect lives portrayed on social media are often not reality. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Suffering from loneliness after a divorce or loss in the family can make the holidays even more stressful. You may feel the absence of a loved one at this time more deeply, especially when seeing others and their families in the holiday spirit.

How can you heal during the holidays?

  1. Establish rituals to honor your loved one; light a candle or read a remembrance poem before dinner.

  2. Do not overcommit. Prioritize events that are important to you and skip others.

  3. Talk about him or her. Mention your loved one and share memories to keep his or her love alive.

  4. Open your heart. Don’t close yourself off as unexpected joys can bring the most happiness.

  5. Do something kind for others. Volunteering, sending holiday cards to military overseas, or sending meals to an elderly neighbor can help create new meaning.

  6. Attend a grief group. As others can relate to your experiences, you may feel less alone.

  7. Engage your children in a memorial activity to keep the spirit of your loved one alive. Put a wreath on a gravesite, give back to a charity, or create a keepsake ornament.

  8. Don’t feel guilty if you need to say “no” to family obligations or if you don’t want to decorate this year. But, also don’t feel guilty if you have a great time and find yourself laughing. Your loved one would want you to experience this joy.

  9. Put the crisis textline in your phone. If feelings of depression overwhelm you, text HELP to 741741.

  10. Enjoy the present and remember that the holiday season will be over before you know it.

The holidays are not a positive time for everyone. Honoring your own feelings, respecting your time and space, and taking care of yourself are crucial in experiencing as much joy as possible. Keeping these tips in mind can help you enjoy the magic of the season more with each passing year.

Terri A. Erbacher, Ph.D. is a School Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is the author of the text Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention, and Postvention.