If the holiday season leaves you stressed, there are ways to cope.

“I’m going home for the holidays and I’ll be in therapy by New Year’s.”

So reads a painted canvas I add to my holiday office décor each year. It’s meant to add a touch of humor to the stressful season, but also to remind my clients (and myself) about self-care and staying mindful. 

Stress impacts our minds and bodies in a variety of ways. Common symptoms include irritability, sadness, difficulty sleeping or wanting to sleep too much, problems concentrating, racing thoughts, headaches, and body aches. 

This year, have a goal to make the holiday season what it should be: a time to stop and reflect rather than push yourself to the edge of insanity. Here are some general hints to help you.

Illustration of hands holding a heart shape.

Allow yourself to feel it. 

Many of us try to talk ourselves out of “negative” emotions. We attempt to numb feelings in a variety of unhealthy ways: too much alcohol, a bag of chips, or other addictive behaviors. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness and acceptance to the present moment rather than worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. For some, holidays are a reminder of loneliness and loss. Allow yourself to feel and acknowledge whatever emotions arise. If you need help processing them, reach out to a specialist.

Illustration of a stop sign.

Stop “shoulding” on yourself

Social media feeds place crazy expectations on us to be “Pinterest perfect.” Be aware of the “shoulds” occuring in your mind.

“I should be baking 26 batches of cookies.” “She should be more grateful for that gift.”

“I should be thankful for every waking moment my children want to be attached to my hip.”

Sound familiar? Rather than shoulding, give yourself a break. Practice talking to yourself in a kind and gentle way — the way you would talk to a small child.

Illustration of a turkey.

Find the humor. 

The reality is that many family gatherings look more like a Griswold get-together than a Hallmark movie. My first attempt at roasting a turkey looked almost exactly like Cousin Catherine’s dried-up bird. Once I collected myself from the puddle of embarrassment and despair on the kitchen floor, we all laughed until we cried. Every year when our family sits down to watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” I have another opportunity to share my inexperienced error. (And by the way, my husband has cooked the turkey every year since.)

Illustration of a gift box.

Give a gift to yourself. 

Treat yourself! When we have a million things on our to-do list, it’s easy to set aside the things that our minds, bodies, and souls need to stay healthy. When we don’t take time for nurturing ourselves, we aren’t the best mom or husband or friend or employee or individual that we can be. Each person’s self-care is different. Find some good tools that work for you and prioritize them on your calendar. Then be mindful of what a difference it makes with your stress level. 

Illustration of a pie chart.

Join the trend to simplify. 

In a society of “more is more,” the pressure to give or get is greater than ever. In preparation for this article, I asked 30 people what their favorite holiday memory or tradition is. The majority of answers weren’t about gifts, though — they were about precious time spent with people they love or the magic of the season.

Illustration of a facial profile with a heart shape drawn over the head.

Finally, try this mindfulness exercise:  

Close your eyes and think of your to-do list for the holidays. What emotions come up? What are you feeling in your body? Take a deep, cleansing breath and inhale the light. Then, exhale any dark stress that is overpowering you. Next, bring to mind a memory or something that brings you joy. What emotions come up? Do a scan and be aware of what that feels like in your body from the top of your head to the bottom of your toes. Sit in that feeling for a while and relish it. Practice this joyful exercise at least once a day.

Nancy Hoey

Nancy Hoey completed her graduate work at the University of Missouri. She is a licensed professional counselor and certified clinical trauma professional. She and her husband, John, live in Jefferson City and have raised four children.