How to Be Less Stressed This Holiday Season

Local psychologist Jocie Sweeney, PhD, provides tips on stress management during this oft-stressful season.

cWe say it all the time: "It's the giving season. It shouldn't be stressful!" Oh, but anyone who's had to decorate the house, grocery shop for a big family gathering, and coordinate all the festive events popping up on their calendar knows that being stress-free during this final stretch of the year is about as easy as pretending to love a gift you hate. It's almost impossible.

Take it from someone who's had to painfully grin through not one but five years of socks as stocking stuffers. Do I love socks? Yes—my feet get bad circulation and are therefore always freezing. But do I love socks as the main present stuffing my stocking hung above the fireplace? Not quite. However, I've had five years of practice learning how to smile at my sock-giving audience (love you, Dad).

And it turns out you can also practice not getting stressed.

Jocie Sweeney, PhD, has her own psychology practice just outside of Uptown on Morehead Street. She says some of the biggest stressors people have during the holidays relate to family, self-expectations, and finances. Sound familiar? 

And, while you actually can't have a stress-free holiday season, Sweeney says, you can definitely work on lowering that stress and getting it under control.

"Great things are stressors too," the psychologist explains. "Stress doesn't have to be people fighting or not having enough money. It's extra stuff you have to do or think about. Even if you're one of the lucky ones where everything goes smoothly, there's still stress. And that's O.K."


How to Lessen Holiday Stress

There are a few different ways to approach the different stressors that arise during the holidays. Sweeney notes that your holiday stressors do usually depend on what brings you stress during the rest of the year—it's just that, during the holidays, these stressors are exponentially increased. So, we're breaking it down into the big three mentioned earlier.


Family Stress

Almost everyone has some sort of family. And if you have a partner, you have to think about his or her family too. And if you have kids… it just keeps getting messier. While the holidays are usually coined as a wonderful time to gather with loved ones, people tend not to mention that, though we love our families, they can still bring us stress. Especially during the holidays. Common family stressors around this time could be, "How do I have time to see all my family?" or "What does my family expect or demand from me?"

Sweeney says the best way to navigate certain family expectations is to first focus on self-care, and, second, realize that it's O.K. to say no. Then, use thoughtful communication to express your feelings to your family members so they know what to expect from you. For example, if you simply don’t feel like hosting, or if your family expects a big blowout from you, tell them what you plan on doing instead. (Something like, "A big blowout isn't really my style; this year will be relaxed and comfortable. I hope you can appreciate it!" works great.)

It's important not to fall into the category of a people-pleaser, which can be easy to do for many. Instead, hold your ground, and politely discuss with your family what you prefer to do for the holidays. It is, after all, your holiday too.


Self-Expectation Stress

Anyone who's hosted any type of event or gathering has likely placed some sort of expectations on themselves. If you're a perfectionist at heart, it may sound impossible not to expect your holiday gathering to be anything but perfect. However, Sweeney warns that giving in to your own expectations of yourself is a fast track to exhaustion and disappointment. How to fix this? It sounds simple in theory: Just don't burden yourself with these expectations. Easy, right?

For some, it's not so easy. If you're someone with high expectations for yourself, Sweeney offers one main snippet of advice: Ask yourself, "What is my main goal?"

The psychologist says, "Usually, for me, the answer to that question is not to be the next Martha Stewart." She continues, "I have to recognize what's important to me and why. We think things are important when, actually, they aren't."

She explains that you should look internally and figure out why you feel so much pressure and why you're hosting or celebrating the holiday in the first place. Usually, you believe people expect a big show from you. And, usually, you're not celebrating Christmas just to show off to your in-laws—you're probably working to combine your two families and celebrate closeness. Once you find a way to get these two aspects more in line with one another, you will have a less stressful holiday season.


Financial Stress

Lastly, it's not uncommon for people to feel burdened by finances during the holiday season, Sweeney admits. Many people try to shrug off financial stressors during the holidays, tricking themselves into believing everything will turn out fine even if they don't have the money. It's common to look at others, see them purchasing expensive gifts, and think you can do the same because they're somehow managing it. That's a big trap.

Sweeney calls it an "irrational thought process."

Money matters are also where "expectations of self" sneak in again. You believe you must provide the perfect gift, no matter how much it costs, but it just leaves you feeling even more burdened and broke. To remedy the feeling that you can't provide great gifts, whether for your own children or even just a friend, Sweeney retains her advice of slowing down and checking in with yourself. 

Ask yourself why you feel the pressure. Ask yourself what other strategies you could explore to accomplish your goal—if you’re buying a gift because you want to communicate something, such as love or appreciation, find another way to communicate that. It doesn't have to be a purchased present; it can be a thoughtful letter. "Be expressive," Sweeney suggests.


And if you've got kids expecting to see the entire world wrapped beneath the tree, Sweeney encourages you to think of alternate resources if you're financially strapped. "Don't be afraid to seek assistance," she says. There are plenty of Christmas assistance programs in Charlotte committed to helping families create a magical Christmas experience for their young ones, regardless of wallet density.

At the end of the day, though, no matter what combination of holiday stressors plague you, Sweeney offers one recurring piece of advice to help appease those anxious feelings: Focus on self-care.

When you take care of yourself, she says, you are laying a foundation for rational thoughts, which can help you center yourself during this time of buzzing commercials and endless traveling. Feed yourself helpful nutrition, engage in exercise, remember to sleep, and hydrate yourself. Because the holidays are also notorious for unhealthy nutrition and drinking habits, it's especially important to remind yourself of the vitals your body craves for a restful mind.

Eat some broccoli, drink some water, and remind yourself that the holidays are a happy time, and you can enjoy them, too. You can do this.



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