Stressing this holiday season? A UAB psychologist offers tips for surviving the holidays

UAB experts provide tips on how to manage holiday stress. 

Stream Holiday StressUAB experts provide tips on how to manage holiday stress. The holiday season may bring feelings of anticipation and excitement, but sometimes this season may also bring stress and anxiety the faster the holidays approach. Megan Hays, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, has some practical advice to transform seasonal stress into moments of joy, genuine connection, relaxation and cherished memories.

Manage expectations

Throughout the holiday season, TV shows, movies, social media posts, advertisements, etc. all paint a picturesque image of the “perfect” holiday experience — festive decorations, gathering around the fire with friends and family, holiday romance, expensive gifts — all of which can lead to unrealistic expectations.  

“The holidays tend to be a mix of joy and stress for everyone, and this is perfectly normal,” Hays said. “Not everything will be perfect, and that is OK. Approach unforeseen challenges over the holidays with flexibility, resilience and humor. A lopsided tree, awkward dinner conversation or burned turkey is not a disaster; it is a memory.”

One way to manage expectations is to talk to loved ones about realistic schedules. Think about features such as the time it takes to prepare for a gathering and travel to a location, and prioritize events as available.  

Learn how to cope with grief this holiday season here.

Take time for yourself

While the holidays may involve many gatherings, meal planning, decorating and preparing gifts, Hays says it is important to remember for everyone to take some time for themselves during the holiday season to recharge their batteries.

“If the conversation at dinner turns a little too political for your liking, you could take that opportunity to go to another room to admire the lights on the tree and take some mindful breaths,” Hays said.

Carve out time to do enjoyable things. Taking time for oneself, even just a couple of minutes, can make a huge difference in one’s well-being. During these moments, try to limit any distractions, and take some time to decompress and unwind.

Keep moving

“The holidays can be a stressful time for people, and physical activity is one of the best stress-management tools we have at our disposal,” Hays said. “I recommend scheduling exercise times like appointments. You may never ‘find’ the time to exercise, but you can make the time.”

Hays recommends using external memory aids such as paper or digital calendars to set some time aside for physical activity. Incorporate movement in creative ways such as going for a walk with others before or after holiday meals, going ice skating, or walking around to see holiday lights. Use holiday shopping as an opportunity to get some extra steps in, such as parking farther away from the door of the destination or walking around the mall before shopping.

Practicing mindfulness can be the key to slowing down and savoring the season. Learn more about practicing mindfulness here.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness has demonstrated benefits for overall health. Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve cognitive abilities, reduce rumination, improve emotional processing, reduce pain, and improve stress management, among other reported benefits. Fortunately, the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season make it a perfect time to start practicing mindfulness and being intentional about grounding oneself in the five senses. 

“You can practice mindfulness by paying attention to the notes of cinnamon, clove and cranberry in your favorite holiday candle and really savor that experience,” Hays said. “You could have a mindful moment in front of your tree by noticing all of the lights and the tiniest details on your ornaments. I also recommend practicing mindful listening over the holidays by putting your phone away at the dinner table and having present conversations.”

Mind your budget

“Overspending over the holidays can lead to a financial hangover come January, ringing in the New Year with additional stress and guilt,” Hays said. “Remember what is important over the holidays by focusing on the simple joys of the season. You don’t need a ton of expensive presents, elaborate decorations or catered food to enjoy what matters most this time of year.”