Along with festive décor, gingerbread cookies, and the crisp scent of evergreen, the "most wonderful time of the year" also ushers in profound feelings of stress and anxiety for many. From the financial strain of gift-giving to the added pressure that can come with revisiting old friends and family members, many consider the holiday season to be the most stressful time of the year.
What's more, women are disproportionally affected by holiday stress, according to a 2011 report from the American Psychological Association. From selecting, purchasing, and wrapping gifts to cooking, cleaning, and party-planning, women end up shouldering most of the additional work associated with the holidays—traditional gender roles be damned. But rather than letting all of the added stress darken your once rosy perception of the holidays, here are a few strategies you can implement ahead of time to keep the December scaries at bay.
One of the many upsides of the holiday season is being able to enjoy some much-needed time off of work—if you plan for it, that is. Between pushed deadlines and end-of-the-year reports, it's easy to let work time spill over into time best spent with friends and family. But considering all of the added stressors that come along with the holidays, it's best to plan ahead (if possible) so that work doesn't top that list. Try doubling up on your workload three days out of the week or scheduling meetings for after the new year. While you may have to endure some long nights at the office to get everything done, your efforts will be well worth the struggle when you can spend the holidays the way they should be spent: at home with friends and family.
Times like these call for multi-page to-do lists broken out into separate categories, with specified time frames for each. While this may sound excessive, there's something to be said for just getting everything you have to do written down on paper—from walking the dog after work this evening to wrapping all gifts by the end of the day on December 23. The simple act of making the intangible tangible is therapeutic enough, not to mention the thrill of crossing each item off the list.
If you'd like to take a more strategic approach in creating your to-do list, take notes from Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg. Duhigg, author of the New York Times bestselling book Smart Faster Better, recommends creating SMART to-do lists: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. This specific breed of to-do list helps break up seemingly insurmountable tasks into small, digestible steps. "You want a system that rewards your brain over time," said Duhigg in an interview with Inc. "[You want your to-do list to say], 'this is what I want to be moving toward.'"
If our countless articles on the subject weren't an indication, we're fanatics of routine and organization—due in large part to the immediate feeling of calmness a clean home can bring. As with a good yoga class or an engaging book, we know we can always turn to a deep apartment clean to restore a sense of order to our lives—something we're in desperate need of come late December. "At the end of the day, being organized is about having more time for yourself, enabling you to live a more balanced life," writes Eva Selhub, M.D., in her book, Your Health Destiny. In fact, people who keep cleaner households have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and are more upbeat and energized than their messier counterparts, according to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Making an effort to keep a clean, calming home could be the difference between calm and chaos during the holidays.
While you may feel tempted to abandon all leisure activities in the face of your growing to-do list, making time for the activities you enjoy most is perhaps the most important thing you can do. "There may be pressure to be everything to everyone [around the holidays]. Remember that you're only one person and can only accomplish certain things," writes the American Psychological Association of making the most of the holiday season. "Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do; others will benefit when you're stress-free." The APA recommends going for a long walk, making a trip to the spa, listening to your favorite music, or reading a new book when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. "By slowing down, you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals."
Perhaps the most important item on this list, you must always remind yourself why we celebrate the holidays, gifts and dinner parties aside. In desperate moments of overwhelming stress, try writing a list of all that you're grateful for in life—from the talents and skills you possess as a professional to the people who support you in all that you do. While this tip happens to be in theme with the holiday season, I've found this to be an extremely useful tactic in combatting stress and anxiety year-round. By shifting your focus to what you're thankful for, you enable yourself to view the bigger picture in life—making your present problems seem smaller in the process.
How do you manage to relieve stress during the holidays? Share your tips in the comments below.