The holiday season often brings an unwelcome guest. (No, not your knucklehead brother-in-law.) Here's how to relax, no matter what (or who) the season may throw at you. —By Grant Stoddard
The yuletide season asks a lot of us: There are decorations to put up, presents to buy, parties to attend, feasts to prepare — and, if you have little ones, the illusion to create that a fat man will conduct a reverse burglary in your home. The good news is that by incorporating some or all of the following strategies, you can minimize the stress that accompanies the holidays. Heck, you may even enjoy them this time around.
The holidays can feel like a shakedown sometimes. Luckily, meditation won’t cost you a dime, plus you can do it anywhere and at anytime. According to a review of 47 studies published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014, mindfulness meditation was effective in reducing anxiety as well as depression and pain. The technique involves being still and concentrating on the present moment, while focusing on relaxing areas of tension throughout the body. The author of the study reported that said that as little as two-and-a-half hours of the practice per week was enough to see significant results.
Spend Money, But On Experiences, Not Things
Sure, we want to see our loved one’s faces light up when we give them a tangible gift we know they’ll love, but a group of psychologists have discovered something they call the Easterlin Paradox, which posits that physical possessions will only make us happier to a point. Unlike things, experiences become part of ourselves. Whether they're luxury vacations or a trip to the movies, experiences also foster social connections, which have demonstrated mood-boosting benefits.
There’s something to be said for a little insincerity every once in awhile, especially around the holidays. According to a University of Kansas study, forcing a fake smile reduces stress. Study participants subjects were asked to plunge their hands into a bucket of ice water while forcing a smile. Researchers monitoring the subjects recorded lower blood pressure in the people who smiled through through the icy experience. What’s more, the smilers reported less anxiety than those who showed neutral or distressed expressions.
Stop Sneaking Cigarettes
All that holiday stress is enough to tempt you back into some old bad habits. And although you may associate smoking with reducing your stress level, the experts begs to differ. Research shows that with the first cigarette of the day, heart rate will increase by 10 to 20 beats per minute. Blood pressure will go up 5 to 10 points.
Lace Up And Get Out
Think of a brief morning run or strength circuit as rocket fuel to power you through the hectic season. Researchers in Denmark found that people who exercise just two hours a week — that's just 17 minutes a day — are 61 percent less likely to feel stressed. "People who exercise prior to stressful encounters report lower spikes in blood pressure during the events because their blood vessels are relaxed," says Rod Dishman, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of Georgia. Sweating before work can mean less sweating once you’ve clocked in. Try our exclusive How to Stay Lean for Life: The Workout!
Make a List
No, not for keeping tabs on who’s been naughty or nice. It’s a coping strategy for a period in which your to-do list seems to grow and grow. Sure, making a long list of stuff that you need to get done might seem stressful in the short term, but not having an agenda may end up being more costly down the line. "Having a lot to do creates a healthy sense of pressure to achieve more focus," says Don Wetmore, J.D., founder of the Productivity Institute. Wetmore suggests overplanning your day by 50 percent. "A project tends to expand with the time allocated to it," he says. "Give yourself one thing to do, and it'll take all day. But give yourself 12 things, and you'll get nine done."
Do something nice
Arguably the most poignant story about the festive season is A Christmas Carol. Familiar? Good. Now ask yourself: Who's more stressed out by the season, Ebenezer Scrooge or his nephew Fred, who invites his miserly uncle to Christmas every year even though he’s almost certain to decline? Be like Fred, even to people in your life who routinely show themselves to be jerks. “Avoidance adds to stress in the long run,” says family business consultant and psychologist Mario Alonso, Ph.D. “By facing problems and acting on them, you are taking control, and that feeling of empowerment will reduce stress.” Even better: a random act of kindness toward the office asshole will automatically make you feel better about yourself even if it goes unacknowledged, maybe especially if it goes unappreciated.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the fleshy place between your index finger and thumb is called the hoku spot.Applying firm pressure there for just 30 seconds can reduce tension in your upper body. When you begin to feel overwhelmed by the holiday craziness, give your hoku spot a squeeze and take a deep breath.
Constant cell-phone buzzing and email alerts keep us in fight-or-flight mode by stimulating bursts of adrenaline. Not only is this exhausting, it contributes to mounting stress levels. Use holiday festivities as an excuse to turn these gadgets off.
Don’t Max Out On Caffeine
Caffeine can give you a much-needed energy boost during a season full of duties and obligations, but consume too much and you could elevate your stress levels and the hormones associated with them. Instead of coffee, try tea. In a British study, people who drank four cups of black tea throughout the day experienced a 47 percent decrease in cortisol, a hormone linked to stress.
Do less, enjoy more
"We go overboard to please others during the holidays: shopping, cooking, sending cards, and attending every event," says George Pratt, PhD, a psychologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in California. "Instead, take care of yourself by saying no at least once—and maybe more."
Agree On Who Does What
Like most family-related issues, holiday chores — stringing up holiday lights, buying presents, entertaining a host of family and friends — are a collaboration, one that revolves less around efficiency than emotion. "Begin with her," says Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., coauthor of The Gender Communication Handbook. "Ask for her thoughts, feelings and ideas about how these chores should go. The more mutual and shared the decision-making process, the better."
Did the cautionary yuletide tale of Clark W. Griswold teach you nothing about your insane desire to win at hosting a holiday celebration? Stop obsessing over doing it all. The world won't end if the house is a little cluttered or dinner is a few minutes late. "Focus your energy on enjoying the people in your life," says Donna Schempp, the program director for the Family Caregiver Alliance. Don't sweat the small stuff, and your holiday will be much more enjoyable.
If It Feels Good, Do It
You may have installed a Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush in your house, but don’t let that stop you from going afield. In a recent study, British researchers found a direct link between time spent in green space and reduced stress levels. (The Japanese call it "forest bathing.") If it’s too cold out, take 15 minutes to do one thing you love instead. Play with the dog, watch YouTube clips of cats jumping into Christmas trees, whatever floats your boat. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that study participants who engaged in pleasurable activities showed reductions in blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Breathe Through One Nostril At A Time
It's called the Nadishudhi alternate-nostril breathing method, and it has a profound and immediate effect on the body, says Kavita Chandwani, M.D., M.PH. She describes the technique: Hold your right nostril closed with your thumb, then breathe in through your left nostril. Without letting out your breath, cover your left nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, then inhale through that nostril with the left nostril covered, close your right nostril, and exhale through the left. Do this for 1 minute. The longer the breaths, the better. Shutting off one of the air passageways causes you to take longer, deeper breaths (it essentially forces you to belly-breathe), which calms nerves, slows heart rate, and reduces blood pressure.
Sleep better with 5-HTP
This plant extract (available in capsules at most drugstores) is thought to increase serotonin, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep. After consulting with your doctor, try taking it and make note how it affects the amount of stress you experience.
Plan a real vacation
As you might expect, taking at least four or five days off work can dramatically lower your stress level. If you have kids and opt for a staycation during the holidays, take turns with your partner doing kid-duty—or send them off to their own vacation at grandma's to give yourself some room to breathe.
Speak... more... slowly
Whenever you feel overwhelmed by holiday stress, practice talking more slowly than you usually would. You will likely find that you can think more clearly and react more reasonably to stressful situations. You’ll also project a sense of calm. See, stressed-out people tend to speak fast and breathlessly; by slowing down your speech, you'll also appear less anxious and more in control of any situation.
Drink the hard stuff only at meals
If you can restrict yourself to modest pours, stick with wine rather than hard liquor at holiday parties. Research from the State University of New York at Buffalo shows that men who drink alcohol other than at mealtimes raise their risk of high blood pressure by 49%, compared with those who use booze only to wash down dinner.
Get Your 8 Hours
Here’s a reason for settling in for a long winter’s nap. Sound sleep allows the body to recuperate and more ably regulate blood pressure, says Ka-Kit Hui, M.D., a professor and the director of the Center for East-West Medicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.
Give And Receive Support
Use dinner prep time to ask your wife or spouse about their day, especially as holiday stress mounts. New research from Florida State University on more than 400 working couples found that men and women with supportive spouses concentrated better at work, were less likely to come home fatigued and reported more satisfaction with the amount of time they spent with their kids. To keep the home fires burning, check out our exclusive guide to the Secrets of the Best Relationships!
It would be tempting to turn off your brain after another day’s mayhem in the lead-up to the holidays, but before you do, take 15 minutes to think about the next day's to-dos. Most people put that little detail off for morning, and it never works. "It's the biggest productivity error of all," Morgenstern says. "The day is already crashing down on you." Plan tomorrow plus two: The three-day arc will keep you focused on the bigger picture, and you'll become better about delegating, prioritizing, arranging holiday tasks.
"Sex is a powerful stress-buster," says Daniel Kirsch, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Stress. "It releases endorphins and induces deep relaxation." First step? Wind down. Stress, including holiday stress, stifles women's orgasms and men's erections. Suggest taking a shower together or offer her a massage, says Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., author of Because It Feels Good. If you’re still not in the mood, don’t sweat it. "Too many men have sex when they're not really in the mood," she says. "And then they have issues they freak out about, and that anxiety freaks them out the next time. Take a rain check. Women do it all the time — men can too."
Give a 'hands-on' gift
In one study, participants who gave massages had fewer medical woes and less stress than those who received rubdowns. Why don’t you and your partner go for a couple’s massage or, if you feel like you’ve got some moves of your own, gift each other.
Negative thinking can trigger the your body's stress response, just as a real threat does. They holidays are a time to celebrate with your family and friends (even if they do stress you out!). An optimistic outlook will help you cope with challenges that come your way.