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Holiday Stress (part 2)

As we discussed the previous week, holiday stress appears to be a pervasive part of our experience with the upcoming holidays. These months are often filled with joy and family celebration, but may also contain periods of increased stress, exhaustion, and frustration.

Our discussion in the last post focused on some of the underpinnings that may lead to the stress that we experience. These factors include internal and external pressures, cultural expectations, as well as our own unique situations that may lend to additional stress during this time of the year.

After releasing the first part of this post, I had several people mention directly that they found this insight helpful, and I now hope to take this a step further. Now that we have outlined some of pressures we experience, the question that follows for me (and I hope for you as well) is - what can we do about it?

With Thanksgiving, and the first of the holiday celebrations quickly approaching, we will now explore some specific techniques and skills to help offset some of the stress you may already be experiencing. There are some very basic skills that most of you will already be aware of, but as a mental health provider, I can attest to the fact that most people also fall away from these simple skills during times of increased stress.


First and foremost, remember to breathe. As silly as this may sound, how many of you have checked in with your breathing style when you were feeling overwhelmed or stressed? The reality is that we are not always conscious of our breath, and despite our lack of awareness the breath has powerful effects. When we are stressed, our breathing changes to a much more shallow and less efficient pattern. The more interesting piece, is that as we breathe in a shallow pattern it begins to trigger a response within our nervous system that puts our body in a higher state of alarm.

I would encourage you to practice this skill right now. Just simply take a slow, deep breath. Make sure that you allow the lungs to expand down into your abdomen. This will signify a deep (diaphragmatic) breath. If you only noticed the upper part of your chest expanding with the breath - try again. In addition to this, take a couple of seconds to reflect on what you noticed with this single breath. Did you notice that subtle change in your perception? It can almost feel that time slowed for a fraction of a second.... This is important because that fraction of a second is sometimes all that you need when you are in the midst of chaos.

Sleep and Eat

Another basic that needs to be stated is to get adequate sleep. Most of us are (at best) sluggish without adequate sleep, and possibly even ineffective and reckless. Now in terms of stress, we are much more susceptible to stressors and the effects of stress when we are lacking sleep. Everyone has been there - made a comment they wouldn't normally make, snipped at a friend, or even completely dropped the ball on a responsibility. One of the best ways to combat stress is to protect your sleep. Regardless of the holiday demands, make sure that you are carving out the appropriate time for sleep and rest.

In addition to regulating sleep, it is also important that you maintain normal and consistent nutrition. During high periods of stress, we may notice that our appetite changes, our desire to eat disappears. This may be okay in the moment, but as the day/week wears on, and the nutrition plummets, we are left with very little energy to combat the high demands of the stress that we face. Even if you can only manage a small snack, you are better off fueling your body through small meals, than going the entire day without sustenance.


Another tried-and-true means to cope with stress is exercise. Now, as half of my audience may feel their eyes roll back in their head, please understand my stance on this: Exercise should not be defined by anyone but yourself. Don't put unnecessary demands/expectations on yourself. Exercise, as it pertains to stress-management is much more loosely defined. It doesn't take much to release endorphins (feel-good chemicals), and in fact, when we are already dealing with the time-crunch of the holiday season, I would not advocate for you to add hours of activity to your weekly schedule (unless you were already budgeting your time for these activities). Rather, what I suggest is to find something that you enjoy, and step away for a few minutes to do it. Going outside with a family member to throw the football for 10 minutes will do wonders to offset a stressful moment; taking a phone call outside while you walk around the block; or even taking "that far parking space" to give yourself a few more moments before walking into the mall.

Limit Multitasking

Another theme I have been seeing lately (especially among millennials) is an overwhelming amount of multitasking (engaging in multiple activities simultaneously). We live in a society that promotes (and even rewards) multitasking - just take a look at the demands of our jobs, as we are often required to juggle multiple demands in concert to complete the final product(s). Unfortunately this pressure begins to spill over into all areas of our life. With the younger generations we see this in a phenomenon that we call multiscreen distraction. How many of us have been watching TV, while also simultaneously working on our laptop/tablet/smartphone? Let's just think about that for a moment...

This process is extremely taxing on our mind and body, and yet we remain oblivious to it. Think about the example of TV watching, something that we do for entertainment, however we have reached a point where we are no longer able to find this activity entertaining enough, and therefore reach for an additional source of entertainment so that our brain can take on the burden of attending to both stimuli.

Some multitasking seems unavoidable in our daily life, but as you move into the stress of the holiday season, one way to help yourself is to limit this self-imposed stress and attempt to do at least one task daily without multitasking. Do two or more things simultaneously, and you'll be doing none at full-capacity. If you focus on the right tasks you may find yourself knocking things off your list with greater efficacy.


Lastly, if you are feeling stressed right now, tell someone. There is great relief in feeling heard and understood by someone. To not feel alone in your struggle can be comforting. This person does not have to be a professional, simply talking to a trusted friend or family member can help relieve some of the pressure. Often by simply verbalizing our stress and concern, it can help us feel less stuck and even help us arrive at workable solutions.

As mentioned in my previous post, this information is not intended to constitute a therapeutic relationship or advice, nor should it replace in-person therapy. I welcome those interested to contact me for additional support and guidance.

For now, use the basics. Don't forget what has worked for you in the past, and do your best to enjoy yourself through the holidays. The conclusion of this discussion on holiday stress will focus on the thought: Why are some people better than others at handling stress, especially during the holidays?

[to be continued]

~ Dr. Miles

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