Employee & Community Health

Don't let stress dampen your holidays

12/13/2018 by Marcia Johnson, LICSW, and Craig Sawchuk, PhD

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The holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year. It can also be one of the most difficult 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 very low due to depression brought on by seasonal affective disorder, anniversaries of loss or memories of difficult childhood holidays. 

Holiday celebrations can also come at a cost — late nights, early mornings, competing demands and seemingly less time to get more things done. While stress is a normal part of everyday life, it's not uncommon 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. 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 time, making the room cool, dark and quiet, and keeping electronics out of the bedroom during the night are good starting points. 

If you find yourself waking up during the night and staying awake longer than 15 to 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: Create stress-management reminders

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. This could be relaxed breathing, brisk walking or practicing a mindfulness exercise. 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-release valves throughout your day to disperse the negative effects of stress. 

Tip #3: Engage with those who make you feel good, avoid 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. Likewise, avoid those who are toxic in your life, those who drain your energy or are frustrating to be around. Sometimes, we can't entirely avoid these toxic people. So practice the "minimum sufficiency principle": Keep interactions polite, but in short chunks of time, then mingle with others. 

Tip #4: Find the humor

Sometimes stress can make us too serious about things large and small. Spending less time watching cable news or checking social media, such as Facebook or Instagram, 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. So try to weave funny things back into your daily life — movies, TV shows, books, online videos, and people who just make you smile. 

Dr. Craig Sawchuk is a clinical psychologist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH). He is the co-chair of IBH and also co-chairs professionalism within the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester. 

Marcia Johnson is a clinical social worker in Employee and Community Health (ECH) at Mayo Family Clinic Southeast. She has been in IBH for the past three years, and worked eight years in addictions, two in transitions, and two in general psychiatry and psychology. Marcia's also a clinical supervisor and preceptor to newer social workers and just celebrated 20 years at Mayo.