By Steve Edwards
It’s the most stressful time of the year. (Do you remember when that line had “wonderful” in it?) Let’s face it, the holidays are stressful. But we’ll get through them. We always do. This year, let’s do it in style.
First, it helps if you know your enemy. According to the American Psychological Association, lack of money and the pressure of gift-giving are the most significant contributors to holiday stress (61 percent and 42 percent, respectively). These are followed closely by lack of time (34 percent) and good ol’ credit card debt (23 percent).
Roughly 20 percent of us are worried that holiday stress will negatively affect our health, and more than a third of us will turn to food or alcohol to cope. On the upside, nearly half of us attempt to use exercise and/or spiritual activities to relieve stress.
These statistics suggest that we’re aware of the situation. So why is it such a problem? Probably because we roll them into one big mess in our heads and allow it to paralyze us, causing us to be reactive instead of proactive. Another factor is articles like this one (but not this one, of course). Most of them advise us not to spend more than we can afford, to get some exercise, or to spend some time by ourselves, or any number of activities that if we could do, we wouldn’t be stressed out in the first place. Basically, they just add to our already skyrocketing stress level!
So let’s reshuffle the deck and come up with some new ways to take the edge off.
- Don’t go for a walk . . . or do any low-intensity aerobic activity, unless you’re already calm. You know you should exercise, and everyone tells you it’s important, but rarely do they tell you how. During these periods, a walk around the block holds the very real possibility of increasing your stress levels. The reason is that easy aerobic exercise only slightly elevates your breathing and stimulates brain function. This allows—or induces—thought, which is exactly what you don’t need when your mind is already overloaded with tasks you don’t have time for. A walk, especially in a beautiful area, might calm and enlighten you, but it also could make you worse. You don’t want to roll those dice, especially when you’re short on time and there are other things that will work.
- Do intense exercise. Hard exercise is all-consuming. It forces you to focus on your breathing or movement to the point where you can’t think about anything else. It also promotes hormonal release, which alters your mood in a positive way. When you’re jumping up and down, lifting heavy weights, or having a roundhouse kick launched at your head, you can’t think of anything else. Intense exercise is the perfect de-stressor because you’re being stressed in a different way that’s good for your body. It also doesn’t take as long. Even if your intense session is shorter than the time it took you to warm up (because you do need to warm up), you’re still benefiting from every second your heart rate exceeds your anaerobic threshold.
- Get cocky (or at least confident). What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and how many holiday seasons have you survived so far? No matter how bad things seem to be, you are going to get through it. And you know it, too, because you’ve done it before. You do it every year. No matter how broke, how tired, or how busy you are, or how many family members you never want to see again are descending on your abode, you’re going to survive, and come January 1st, you’ll be right back to doing whatever you were doing before it all began. You know you can—and will—make it through, so why worry?
- Embrace your mornings. Ever notice that no matter how you felt when you were falling asleep, you wake up feeling calm and relaxed? This feeling may only last a few seconds, but every day, it’s there. You can force yourself to control this feeling and hang onto it to the point where it permeates your entire day. Statistics say that 14 percent of people use yoga or meditation to combat stress, but sometimes it’s hard to find that state when you’re already amped up. Plus these activities take time, which creates a catch-22, because the lack of time is adding to your stress in the first place. When you wake up, though, you’re already in a meditative state. Enabling yourself to ride this state out for a while greatly enhances your ability to fend off stress throughout the day.
- Exercise while shopping and driving. Shopping is already exercise. You get the physical benefits of a walk or hike, and you’re mentally stimulated enough so you barely notice that it’s exercise. At least until you get into the car and feel like—whoa—you’ve just carried a bunch of weight up and down a few flights of stairs. But this is no time to stop exercising. Use your time in the car to de-stress and promote recovery. You can do breathing, stretching, and ab work while you’re driving (at lights or in slow traffic) and it won’t be dangerous, as the movements you want to do will make you more alert and supple, so you’ll react better to all those stressed-out crazy drivers on the road.
- Try some desk stretches. You probably know that stretching calms and relaxes you, but between parties, shopping, and getting the house ready for family, who’s got the time? You don’t need any if you get creative. You can steal a short stretching session from time you’re devoting to something else by looking for opportunities. You just need to be aware. Possibilities are everywhere.
- Think, don’t drink. You don’t need to avoid holiday cheer altogether, but keep in mind that each drink you have will take away from your valuable time and available energy. Many people tend to reach for alcohol during times of stress, because up front it alters your mood and temporarily eases the situation. But during the holidays, money and time are causing most of your stress. Alcohol is expensive, and even when it’s free, it takes time. It’s not so much the front end that matters. Feeling hung over can zap the small amount of extra energy you need to combat your stress and stay on top of your game. It’s like adding a handicap to your holiday challenge. So think ahead and strategize those holiday events, and they’ll be so much easier to handle.
- Remember what the season is supposed to be about. The holiday season is about embracing family and friends, not being beholden to them or showering them with gifts you can’t afford. The commerciality of Christmas has caused our society to lose focus on what really matters. Since nearly half of us turn to spirituality to help combat holiday stress, we’re already trying. But it can take more focus than just going to church. It helps to focus on believing that the holidays are about people and relationships, and not stuff. Doing this can help you realize that the last thing your friends and family want from you is something that would add strain to your life. They just want to spend time with you.
- Take back the night. After a whirlwind day, it’s all too easy to spend the evening remembering things you’ve forgotten to do, and trying to figure out where to fit them in tomorrow. While it’s great to try to be organized and efficient, this is not the optimal condition for hitting the sack. If you can’t go to sleep, you’re losing both valuable time and your ability to perform the next day. So try to set a time each night at which you’ll finish working. Write it down, or whatever works for you, and then check it off the list. Then spend some time de-stressing. Maybe read the kids a seasonal story, snuggle up on the couch with It’s a Wonderful Life, or get into bed with a cup of valerian tea and a book. Do whatever you like—just make it for you and your family, because ultimately, that’s what the holidays should be about. (Sorry, Santa.)