Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Don't let stress dampen your holidays

12/15/2022 by Alisson Lass, Ph.D.; Anne Roche, Ph.D.; Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P.


The holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year. It also can be one of the most challenging times of the year for many people — for a number of reasons. Many have expectations that they must "feel great and act great." When, in fact, they feel extremely low due to depression — sometimes brought on by seasonal changes, anniversaries of loss or memories of difficult childhood holidays. We've also likely experienced many changes to typical holiday activities over the past couple of years with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Holiday celebrations also can come at a cost — late nights, early mornings, competing demands and less time to get things done. While stress is a normal part of everyday life, it's common for it to build up over the holidays.

Not all stress is bad — it can help you get motivated, stay focused and give you the energy you need to get things done. If stress becomes overwhelming and starts to get in the way, however, it might be helpful to think about trying some stress management strategies. As the holidays ramp up, these tips can help you fill your tank and build buffers into your day-to-day living.

Tip 1: Stick to a healthy sleep routine

If there's only one health habit to focus on during the holiday season, it's getting a good night's sleep. Good sleep practices, such as maintaining a normal bedtime and wake-up time, making the room cool, dark, quiet and keeping electronics out of the bedroom during the night are good starting points. Of course, it can be challenging to do all of these things perfectly, especially with young children, irregular work hours or travel. Even still, doing your best to follow these healthy sleep practices as much as possible can have a significant impact. 

If you find yourself waking up during the night and staying awake longer than 15–20 minutes, get out of bed and go into another room. Keep the lights down low and do relaxing or even boring things, like folding laundry or sorting socks, until you feel your head start to bob and your eyes get heavy. Then try going back to bed. This will help your brain learn to associate the bed and nighttime with sleep.

Tip 2: Experiment with stress management skills and set reminders

Stress management skills are strategies we use to fill our energy tanks and help us through stressful times. The skills that work best can be different for everyone, but might include things like relaxed breathing, brisk walking or practicing a mindfulness exercise.

Even with good intentions to practice healthy stress management skills, the day can get hectic, and we simply forget to do them. First, pick an easy, do-anywhere strategy that can help with physical symptoms of stress. Then, use an external reminder, such as setting a notification on your phone every hour or placing a bright-colored sticky note on your computer. These reminders help you build in pressure relief valves throughout your day to disperse the negative effects of stress.

Tip 3: Engage with those who make you feel good, and limit time with those who don't

Part of the fun — and challenge — of the holiday season is spending more time with others. Face it. Some people make us feel good and some not so good. Go out of your way to surround yourself with those who "fill you up" and you enjoy spending time with, which will help you feel better overall. If important people in your life drain your energy or are frustrating to be around, it can be helpful to limit the amount of time you spend with them. You can do this using the "minimum sufficiency principle," keep interactions polite but in short chunks of time, then mingle with others. You also can try to establish healthy boundaries in these relationships. For example, if your family has certain hot button issues that tend to cause disagreements, you might try saying, "I would love to get together for a holiday meal, but I'd like to avoid talking about [hot button issue] at the dinner table and instead focus on spending quality time with each other."

Some people may find that it's simply not an option to spend time with their family of origin. That's OK. When spending time with family is not possible and/or desirable, it can be helpful to create a family-of-choice. A family-of-choice can be created by finding individuals who care about you and support you. A family-of-choice can be comprised of anyone, regardless of whether they are related by blood. What's most important is that the individuals in your family-of-choice accept you for who you are.

Tip 4: Extend yourself some grace 

At the risk of sounding trite, it cannot be ignored that the past several years have brought about unprecedented amounts of stress. The pandemic, geopolitical events, inflation, etc., have impacted us all. Many of us are tired and could really use a break. When we have little control over the things that are causing our stress, it can be helpful to stop and examine the things that we can control. Are any of the responsibilities on your plate negotiable? For example, every year over the holidays you make a homemade pie that is very time- and labor-intensive. If the thought of making the pie is stressing you out, you may want to consider that store-bought pie is also pretty tasty, and it would save you a lot of time. It's OK to give yourself a break.

Sometimes stress can make us too serious about things large and small. Spending less time watching cable news or checking social media might be a good idea. It's only natural to compare our lives to others, and even among "friends," we may feel like we come up short. 

Happiness and laughter are good for the brain, good for the body and good for the soul. When things get too hectic, we may lose sight of the lighter side of life. Try to weave funny things back into your daily life — movies, TV shows, books, online videos and people who just make you smile.

Alisson Lass, Ph.D., and Anne Roche, Ph.D., are clinical health psychology fellows in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health. 

Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health. He is the co-chair of Integrated Behavioral Health and also co-chairs Clinical Practice within the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.