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Navigating Stress Through the Holidays

All of us are familiar with the term “stressed out.” But, what does this mean, really? defines “stressed out” as a term first used in 1983 for someone “suffering from high levels of physical or especially psychological stress.” And what IS “stress?” The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) defines stress as “the brain’s response to any demand…including change.” Stress can be associated with positive or negative changes (big or small) that are welcomed or unexpected, and that can be short-lived (acute) or enduring (chronic). All animals (that includes us!) have a survival mechanism called a “stress response” which provides a hormonal “boost” to our brain and body, helping us successfully cope with stressful situations, particularly in the short-term. Complex and long-term stresses simply wear us out, literally depleting our mental, emotional, and physical resources. This stress-driven burnout can negatively impact our physical, social and emotional health. Remember that stress affects all of us, yet it’s particularly important to acknowledge the impact of stress for anyone already coping with health-related or other life challenges. For example, women coping with Fibromyalgia Syndrome, other forms of chronic pain, chronic medical conditions (e.g., diabetes), surgically induced or natural menopause, transitional life events (e.g., career opportunities / demands, relational challenges such as separation or divorce, shifts in caretaking demands, such as for adult parents) may be even more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress at any time, and certainly, during the extended holiday season. The demands, “to dos” and even cherished traditions of the holiday season create a perfect stew for increasing stress.

With this in mind, we offer the following suggestions for coping with the stress of planning, hosting, visiting and managing family during the holidays. Choose the techniques that appeal most to your sensibilities, and please contact us if you’d like additional information or resources.

Setting Healthy Boundaries Can Prevent Burnout

  • Saying NO is an act of self-careness, rather than self-ishness, and can help you to honor existing obligations, without over-committing and wearing yourself out.
  • Saying NO (especially to things you don’t particularly like) can allow you the option to try new things that you wouldn’t otherwise have time or energy to pursue.
  • Saying NO also enables others the opportunity to step in and participate.

Choosing When to Say NO

  • Consider what matters most to you—What are you most passionate about? Follow your passion, or take a pass.
  • Remind yourself of current obligations—Be sure you can meet them, before taking on additional commitments.
  • Weigh the yes-to-stress ratio. How much stress is in your yes? Take stock of your “holiday leftovers” if you say yes—What personal resources will you have left to give?
  • Get rid of the guilty-stress-yes. Committing out of guilt (rather than true interest) often generates more stress.
  • Grab a few winks before stepping off the brink to a new commitment—Sleep on it. Really. This alleviates any immediate sense of pressure to respond, and also provides a fresh perspective for better decision-making.

How to Say NO

  • Just say NO, without fear. You can do it, and practice really helps. Avoid maybe later-yes responses (e.g., “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think I can”). The word NO has power and people respect it.
  • Be honest, yet brief. There’s no need to fabricate a reason to refuse the request or to justify your NO. Offer an explanation, if you wish—just keep it simple and direct.
  • Be respectful. You can thank someone for offering/asking (which is often well-received), but still say NO.
  • Be ready to REPEAT NO as needed (especially to someone having a hard time accepting your NO). Be calm, repeat your NO, and carry on!

Minimizing Stress Associated With Family Gatherings

  • Be a realist, rather than a perfectionist or pessimist. As our families and friends change, some of our holiday traditions and rituals may be taxed. Flexibility is a true gift here—for yourself and others. Consider what traditional elements to embrace, what can be modified, and what can be welcomed in anew.
  • Make a list and check it twice, especially for the naughty and nice. For any holiday get-together, have a plan for your entry, participation in, and exit from the setting. It will help to consider who you will enjoy talking to, how you can respond to sensitive conversation topics with others, and how to avoid any anticipated toxic encounters if the weather inside is frightful! Be especially kind to yourself at these difficult holiday gatherings. Acknowledge, validate and buffer any emotionally tender parts of yourself that may be triggered through interactions with specific family members or friends.
  • Let it go, Let it go, Let it go…Remind yourself that you cannot control others’ remarks or actions. Others will “come as they are,” and may not meet your hopes and expectations. You can only choose how to respond to others who are behaving badly. Allow yourself the gift of time (e.g., take several deep breaths—just a few seconds—before responding logically, rather than reacting emotionally). Acknowledge differences and frustrations, and then let them go.
  • Heap on the humor. If you can respond with laughter, rather than annoyance, you’ll navigate the holiday gathering with more ease—and enjoyment.
  • Bring your “power blankie.” Carry a positive reminder as a token of your strength and endurance (e.g., a photo, a prayer, a special piece of jewelry, your sobriety chip, etc.).
  • Plan your personal after-party. After any stressful holiday gathering, reserve time for your own recovery. Pamper yourself in small or big ways—as long as these are things designed especially for you (e.g., cozy up with your favorite mug of hot cocoa and a good book; take a nap; plan easy, fun time with a friend).


We welcome the opportunity to be of further help and support to you. Wishing you a lovely holiday season!

Jeremy Bidwell, Ph.D. & Theresa M. Schultz, Ph.D.

(Additional Contributor: Jennifer Roberts, Psy.D.)

Care for adults, children, and families.



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