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Stanford University School of Medicine

What to do when “the most wonderful time of the year” doesn’t quite feel like it

orglz7cjfic-chelsea-francisThe holidays tend to be a time of increased stress. Calendars are more packed than usual, financial concerns may bubble up, and there can be a lot of unrealistic expectations around how things should be and how we should feel. This stress can have a ripple effect on our relationships and mental health, and so I spoke with Stanford psychiatrist Amy Poon, MD, on ways to minimize stress, build resilience, and maximize the meaning and joy the holidays can bring.

A sampling from the Q&A:

What are the best ways to manage holiday stress?

One of the best ways to begin is by having an increased awareness of the stress and the wide range of emotions this season can bring, as this helps us adjust our expectations. A common source of stress is when our expectations about circumstances or other people are not met.

It is especially important to care for ourselves when we are under increased stress. Sleep, exercise and healthy eating can help us build resilience during the holidays. Increased stress can contribute to existing problems and conditions, including insomnia, depression, anxiety, and even panic attacks, to name a few. It is important to recognize when we are experiencing too much stress, and to give ourselves permission to be flexible.  For example, if we are overscheduled or feeling too much time pressure during the holidays, it may help to give ourselves permission to scale back on things like decorations, holiday activities, etc.

How can people avoid strained relationships at the holidays?

It is important to remember that as we experience more stress at the holidays, others do, too. We may encounter crowds of impatient shoppers, rude or inconsiderate drivers, and our friends and family may react differently under stress.

Family conflict can escalate quickly. Rather than reacting harshly when loved ones are irritated or angry, which may be our inclination, it may help to take a pause and consider giving them some space and time to cool off. If they are willing to have a calm conversation, we might ask about what is causing their unhappiness, as it can help people to open up and feel understood by others. By not reacting in anger, we can create an opportunity to connect and empathize with loved ones who are also experiencing increased stress, possibly even improving our relationships with them.

Poon also offers guidance for people experiencing grief this holiday season.

Previously: Tips to survive — and thrive during holiday family eventsSix mindfulness tips to combat holiday stress and Ask Stanford Med: David Spiegel answers your questions on holiday stress and depression
Photo by Chelsea Francis

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