How to deal with holiday stress and enjoy the season

by | Dec 23, 2021 | Last updated Mar 16, 2023

The winter holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year: beautiful decorations, delicious food, and quality time with loved ones. However, it can also be incredibly stressful: coordinating plans, juggling commitments, hectic travel, and shopping for those hard-to-buy-for folks on your gift list (could Aunt Linda use another dustbuster?)

If you’re someone who finds themselves more stressed than merry this time of year, you’re not alone. We have some tangible tips to help you release tension and enjoy the holiday season. Because sometimes, we need a bit more than a glass of eggnog and a sugar cookie to take the edge off.

1. When you’re feeling scatterbrained: A braindump

If you’ve never heard of doing a braindump, it’s exactly what it sounds like: dumping out all your thoughts on a piece of paper (or in your notes app, or in a Word doc, or on a cocktail napkin… whatever works for you!). You might be familiar with “stream of consciousness writing”, and that’s essentially what a brain dump is. Writing out all your thoughts can help you build awareness around your thought patterns (which thoughts are here to stay, and which thoughts come and go.)

When you have a lot on your mind and are finding it difficult to focus, take a few minutes out of your day for a brain dump: get out a piece of paper (or whatever you’ll be writing on), write “brain dump,” and the date and time. Then, set a timer for two minutes and write down everything that comes to mind. 

Stuck? Here are some prompts that can get the juices flowing:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • If your brain could talk right now, what would it say?
  • What are the thoughts you’re experiencing? 

The best part of doing a braindump? There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Your brain dump can include things you’re stressed about, things you’re excited about, things you’re grateful for, items on your to-do list, random thoughts, doubts you’re having, resistance you’re feeling… you name it. You can also use words, illustrations, bulleted lists, paragraphs of writing—anything!

2. When you’re feeling frustrated or resentful: Gratitude spreading

When you’re in the heat of an aggravating situation, it’s easy to ruminate over everything that’s causing you stress rather than looking on the bright side. Research shows that practicing gratitude can help give you optimism and a sense of meaning, improve sleep, improve romantic relationships and friendships, increase happiness, and lead to an overall sense of wellbeing.

For some people, listing out everything they’re grateful for might seem overwhelming or cheesy. Gratitude spreading is a different (but equally effective) way to connect with your gratitude while also connecting with others. Have a favorite book, coffee shop, new recipe, or YouTube video? Share something you’re grateful for with a loved one. 

Sharing helps you reawaken your appreciation for said thing. If you’re feeling up to it, you can share something new with a loved one every other day for a week or two. Some examples include sending a podcast episode that inspired you, going for a hike together on your favorite trail, or sharing a song that gets you pumped up. While doing this, try to immerse yourself in the experience as well and imagine re-experiencing it for the first time.

3. When you’re feeling overwhelmed: A phone-free break

We know, we know: you can’t imagine a world without your phone. It’s the handheld rectangle that keeps us connected to the world and engages our time most of the day, but it can also be a huge source of stress. Not only might you be comparing yourself to everyone else’s perfect holiday plans on social media or scrambling to answer end-of-year emails, but you may also be distracting yourself to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings altogether (while this is normal, you can only truly release your stress once you’ve acknowledged it).

Instead, make a conscious effort to have phone-free breaks, whether that’s putting your phone in another room for 15-20 minutes or setting screen time limits on your device. By intentionally disengaging from your phone, you can have more time to focus on calming activities like reading a book, going for a walk, taking a bath, or mindfully cooking. If you’re feeling up for it, take some time during your phone-free breaks to jot down your thoughts and feelings—now might be a good time for another braindump. 

4. When you’re feeling physical tension: A breathing exercise

When you’re looking to relieve stress ASAP, you have everything you already need: your breath. Don’t believe us? There’s tons of science and research to prove that deep breathing can help reduce stress and calm you down. Practicing a breathing exercise is like an SOS plan you can count on when things get tough, and can turn your mood around in a matter of minutes. When you need to curb anxiety and get grounded immediately, try one of these three breathing exercises:

Falling-out breath:

  1. Take a deep breath in, filling your lungs as much as possible.
  2. At the top of your breath, take one more sip of air.
  3. Exhale with a big, out-loud sigh (something like “HHHAAAAA”) as you release all the air.
  4. Repeat for 60 seconds.

Box breath:

  1. Inhale to the count of four. 
  2. Hold your breath at the top to the count of four. 
  3. Exhale to the count of four. 
  4. Hold your breath at the bottom to the count of four.
  5. Repeat for 60 seconds.

Emptying breath:

  1. Inhale to the count of three.
  2. Exhale slowly to the count of six, releasing as much air as you can.
  3. Repeat for 60 seconds.