The holidays can be a great time to spend with your loved ones and enjoy some much needed time off. But as with any big event, it can equally be a very stressful time with preparations, commitments and gift giving. If you or a loved one feels added stress during the busy holiday season, you’re not alone. According to a recent study done by the American Psychological Association (APA):

  • 20% of Americans feel stress “often” during the holiday season, and 61% feel stress either “often” or “sometimes”
  • 68% report feeling fatigue often or sometimes
  • 36% experience feelings of sadness
  • 52% feel irritability often or sometimes

Why Do People Experience Holiday Stress?

That same study points to some key facts about the reasons for holiday stress, as well as who is most vulnerable. For example, for many people, a principal factor is the combination of commercialism and their own financial problems. Being time and money poor during a period where both are in high demand to meet the social expectations of the season have put undue stress on many people.

Have you ever felt the obligation to reply “yes” to all of the invitations you received even though all you want to do is have a relaxing evening at home? Or feel the need or want to give everyone you know a gift? These demands, added to any daily stress, can start to feel overwhelming very quickly.

What Can You Do to Reduce Stress?

The fact that so many people experience stress during the holidays tells us that it’s a common feeling, one which you can’t reasonably expect to eliminate completely. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it should be ignored or that there’s nothing you can do about it.

Here are some proactive steps you can take to reduce stress:

You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. The first and perhaps most important step is to understand and acknowledge your negative feelings. This can be difficult when you’re receiving messages that you should be happy and full of holiday merriment, but unless you acknowledge your feelings, you can’t overcome them.

Get involved. One of the best ways to break feelings of isolation or loneliness is to help others in need. Reach out to local charities and community organizations to get involved in volunteer programs. It’s difficult to focus on your own troubles when you’re helping others.

Don’t have unrealistic expectations. Once again, commercial messages tell us that every family is happy and connected during the holidays. Those messages are intended to sell products and don’t accurately reflect the way things are for most people. Expect that there will be occasional problems during the holidays, and don’t expect that all will be the perfect holiday celebration that’s depicted in movies or on TV.

Don’t spend more than you have. You don’t need to have every new product you see hawked on TV, and your children don’t need to have every new toy. Remind yourself that your most important goal for the holidays is to show family members that you love them, and to receive their love in return. Spending more money than you have creates unnecessary anxiety.

Prioritize your holiday activities and learn to say no. Many people, friends, family members and coworkers, will ask you to attend holiday parties or perhaps work extra hours. Some of this you can’t control, but some of it you can. Decide which activities are most important to you, and don’t feel guilty if you occasionally need to turn someone down. Simply explain, as politely as possible, that although they’re important to you, you don’t have the time to do everything on your list.

Don’t neglect your health. Stress has a biological component. Lack of physical activity, sleeplessness and an unhealthy diet can all increase the stress you feel. Make a commitment to stay active, and to get the rest you need. It’s OK to overindulge a bit during the holidays, but try to avoid foods that contribute to stress, like those high in fat, sugar and caffeine. Replace these with stress-fighting foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as high-fiber foods.