The holidays are a time of joy and celebration, but it is not uncommon for people to feel more down or stressed-out than usual during this time of year. While the closeness of family and the giving spirit may generate excitement for most of us, it may cause tension or sadness in others. The media portrays the holidays as festive and care-free, setting high expectations that may not be entirely realistic in our complex lives.

A study by Mental Health America cites finances, memories of lost love ones, and an overabundance of activities as the top three holiday stressors. Furthermore, the holiday season tends to intensify, rather than reduce the stress levels of individuals who experience high stress throughout the year. An American Psychological Association survey finds that the added responsibilities often assumed by women during holiday time increases women’s holiday stress levels more substantially than men’s.

The connection between emotional well-being and health is well established. An abundance of medical research indicates a correlation between high personal stress and the increased incidence of mental and physical health issues. Some of the ways in which we try to alleviate stress, such as increased food or alcohol intake, can have serious long-term health consequences which ironically generate more stress.

There are many effective strategies to manage stress during the holidays and year-round. To make this holiday season more joyful and less stressful, consider the following tips:

Manage your expectations of the holiday season and let yourself experience your true range of feelings. Not everything about the holidays must be perfect, and it’s okay if you are not happy all of the time. Just knowing this can reduce pressure on you and improve your mood.

  • Pace yourself. Spread out activities and obligations to make them more enjoyable.
  • Talk with your family about finances and create a reasonable budget. This is crucial in today’s challenging financial climate. Consider home-made or other creative gift options.
  • Look toward the future, particularly if memories of past holidays are undesirable. Each holiday season is a new opportunity, and can be different than the last.
  • Do something kind for someone else. Volunteer work or acts of charity can be true expressions of holiday giving that benefit both the giver and the recipient.
  • Enjoy free activities, such as holiday concerts or a stroll through town to see the decorations.
  • Establish new traditions with family or the people you are closest to.
  • Accept help with holiday-related responsibilities. Allow others to share in the decorating, cooking and shopping.
  • Surround yourself with caring people. Reach out to new friends, or re-connect with someone special you’ve lost touch with.
  • Save some time for yourself! Maintain as much of your routine as possible, incorporating exercise and other activities related to self-care.

Seek additional emotional support if necessary: Family doctors or clergy can provide valuable assistance and resources to help manage stress.

Sources: Mental Health America, SAMHSA, American Psychological Association, Your Advocate EAP, and Washington and Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Centers. For additional information, consult your physician.