2020 isn’t over yet, and COVID is still here -- just in time to add anxiety and tension to the normal holiday stress that comes every year. Between the gift shopping and wrapping, the meal preparing and cooking, and a long list of to-dos, the weeks leading up to 2021 are likely feeling overwhelming, especially given the ongoing pandemic. With new travel restrictions, a heated election, extra financial challenges, health concerns, and the general dumpster fire that has been 2020 thus far, we’re all feeling a little more exposed and raw than in a “normal” holiday season. Where’s Clark Griswold and his holiday cheer when we need him?
If you’re looking for ways to ease the stress in your life, it’s a known fact that exercise can help by releasing endorphins that act as feel-good neurotransmitters to the brain! But if you’re not a gym rat or you simply can’t (or don’t want to) get moving, what else can you do to relieve holiday stress and actually enjoy this time of year? Let’s take a look.
- Be social. It’s human nature to want to be a part of a group or fit in with like-minded people, so spending time with others is important for remaining healthy. However, interactions really should be done remotely rather than physically since things are a little different this year. Make a phone call or plan a Zoom meeting to talk to family and friends while still staying as safe as possible. Conversations and socializing can help to reduce stress by calming your nervous system, allowing you to feel supported, and giving you a moment to be mentally alert.
- Limit social media. One of the most important tips we can provide this holiday season is this: Stay away from social media if you’re feeling stressed. Just. Stay. Away. Those picture-perfect Pinterest and Instagram feeds won’t do anything but force you to compare yourself to what you see -- which is not entirely accurate anyway. Those images don’t show the family arguments, the burned turkeys, or the insurmountable mountain of credit card debt. Instead, spend your time looking into eyes, not screens. Hold hands, not phones or gaming controllers. Choose laughter, joy, and human connection over retweets and “likes.”
- Give back. It’s easy to focus on our own thoughts as well as material things during the holidays. But these feelings often lead to more anxiety as we try to figure out how to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of agonizing over what you have (or don’t have), why not give back to those less fortunate? Donate money to a non-profit organization, donate warm clothing to the homeless or toys to underprivileged children, or volunteer your time and serve food at the community shelter. Helping others will hopefully help you appreciate what you have and lead to feelings of connectedness -- both of which can lower stress levels.
- Just breathe. Let’s talk about breathing exercises! Oops! Did we say “exercise”? Well, this one can be done anytime, anywhere! It’s also more for clearing the mind or simply for mindfulness instead of stressfulness. When you breathe, you take in fresh oxygen into your bloodstream, which ultimately feeds your body’s organs such as the central nervous system and the brain. When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, inhale deep breaths into your nose and exhale through your mouth. Yoga can also be a helpful activity (that’s not quite as strenuous as a traditional workout) to lower stress levels by focusing on breath control.
- Smile more. Not only does smiling bring joy to others, but it’s been suggested that smiling can also reduce your body’s response to stress and lower your heart rate in tense situations. Studies and research also linked smiling to decreased blood pressure and suggested that smiling may lead to longevity. It doesn’t matter whether your smile is genuine or forced -- your brain still sees the activity and assumes that humor is happening, meaning that things are okay! Pretty wild, right? Did you know that smiling can actually be an exercise, too? To work that smile (and your facial muscles), check out these exercises designed to make you happy and keep you healthy.
- Get enough sleep. One of the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal to fight holiday stress and anxiety is sleep. Instead of pulling another all-nighter while binging those much-anticipated Hallmark Christmas movies, put your sleep first. Not only will getting at least seven and a half hours of shut-eye keep your anxiety and stress under control, but it will also give your immune system a boost -- which is now more important than ever. Washing your hands, getting outside, staying active, and resting will all help you feel healthy, peaceful, and strong. Avoid burning your candle at both ends by getting up early and staying up late. Get enough sleep.
- Meditate. Stress can come in many forms: depression, weight gain, sleeplessness, brain fog, irritability, and anxiety, to name a few. If you’re experiencing one or more of these, it’s understandable to want to clear some headspace, especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Enter meditation. Did you know that meditating can fight stress, decrease anxiety, boost your mood, and even curb unhealthy cravings? There are many different ways to practice meditation, but it’s often recommended to start slow and simple and build to more complex techniques as you progress.
- Eat healthy. It goes without saying that you’ll need as much energy as you can get to make it through the busiest time of the year, so cook wholesome meals with nourishing ingredients and make eating healthy a priority. We’re not saying you have to pass on eating Grandma’s famous sugar cookies or watching “A Christmas Story” with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, but consuming too much sugar disrupts your brain’s neurotransmitters, your insulin and blood sugar levels, and your natural hormone responses. Combine that with a packed schedule and a lack of sleep from too much caffeine, and you’ve got a recipe for a rush of stress and anxiety. Opt for these 10 healthy foods to reduce stress and boost your immune system.
- Keep a journal. There are many reasons one might keep a journal. From prayer journals and gratitude journals to dream journals and travel journals, we keep daily writings for many different aspects of our lives. Recording the day’s events and making observations is important for understanding our world. In fact, without diarists like Samuel Pepys and Anne Frank, we wouldn’t have nearly the amount of historical knowledge that we do. Try your hand at journaling by writing down three positive things that happened to you each day, no matter how small or meaningless they may seem. Describe these bright spots as best you can and make note of the role you played in each one. You’ll boost your mindfulness and be more aware of how much control you have over the happy moments in your life.
- Take a shower. Don’t underestimate the healing powers of a shower -- and a locked door. Hydrotherapy is the use of water, both externally and internally, at different temperatures for health purposes. For instance, the steam in hot showers acts as a natural decongestant that can break up stuffiness, while cold showers are known to improve blood circulation, increase endorphins, and decrease cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone. Also, a chilly shower may temporarily take your mind off of your stress since you’re more likely to focus on the temperature of the water itself. This mindful practice keeps you in the moment rather than worried about things that you can’t control. Consider adding a eucalyptus plant in the shower or room to make the space all the more rejuvenating and relaxing.
- Create a relaxing environment. After all, your home should be a tranquil retreat. The last thing you want to do after a long, busy day is return to a chaotic and hectic house, which can ultimately exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress. To create a positive space, decorate quickly and simply by choosing one item like bows, miniature trees in various sizes, or ornaments in decorative bowls. Use that item in abundance instead of trying to pair different items together. Looking for soft lighting? Set up some aromatherapy candles designed to calm and relax. We also love using tea lights across a mantle or along windowsills. Finally, add easy ambiance with some holiday carols or soft, jazzy music -- whatever eases your stress and puts you in the holiday spirit.
- Engage in safe sex. If you have a partner living with you safely in your home, don’t forget the value of intimacy and sex on stress. Not only does it feel good, but sex can also alleviate pain, bolster your immune system, and make you happy -- all things necessary for getting us through the go-go-go of the holidays. Keep in mind that stress can also have a hand in low libido, particularly during this busy season, but even simple acts like hugging and touching can boost your self-esteem and happiness, too.
- Stay at home. Most of us would love to travel to visit our family and friends during this holiday season. After all, 2020 has been a roller coaster of a year for everyone, and there’s nothing we’d love more than to relish the companionship of our loved ones. Unfortunately, taking a trip just isn’t the safest thing to do in a pandemic -- but that might not stop others from asking you to visit. If you’re feeling guilty about staying home, there are nice ways to say “no” to visits, trips, or social gatherings. To take the stress out of declining a social gathering, suggest an alternative way to hang out, keep your response honest, make your answer short and sweet, and be positive. Remember: It’s absolutely okay to say “no.”
Regular exercise has many benefits for your overall health -- mentally, physically, and emotionally. It can help to increase your focus, energy, and self-confidence while lowering your anxiety and stress levels. However, exercise is not the only way to reduce your stress levels this holiday season. If you’re feeling worried or anxious because your holiday plans look different during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not the only one. But with some practical tips and helpful advice, you can minimize the stress that usually accompanies the holidays and instead find some peace and joy. You might even end up enjoying this season more than you expected.
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