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Managing Holiday Stress

[fa icon="calendar"] Dec 10, 2021 7:15:00 AM / by Kim Mcilnay, BCPA

Kim Mcilnay, BCPA

Stressed Woman

The holiday season can bring unrealistic expectations of perfection. We’re flooded with images of the perfect meal, the exceptional gift, and designer-level home décor. Somehow we’re made to feel that with just a little extra effort, cash, or time we can achieve all of this perfection.

No wonder the holidays often add a heightened level of stress to our already demanding lives.

How Stress Impacts Our Bodies

Stress can have significant impact on our physical and mental health. The Mayo Clinic sums up the wide-range of stress this way, “...stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior.” Specifically it can cause headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue to name just a few.

The good news is there are things you can do to prevent or minimize stress on your physical and mental health this holiday season.

Mental Health

The Mayo Clinic and UCSF's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health offer these suggestions for minimizing holiday-induced mental stress:

  • Dealing with Loss. There are many forms of loss, such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or inability to spend the holidays with special loved ones. You can’t change the facts, but there are things you can do to help ease the loss:
    • Acknowledge your feelings. Ignoring or denying they exist won’t make your feelings go away.
    • Feel your sadness; cry if you want to.
    • Also allow yourself the ability to feel joy and happiness when those moments occur.
  • Connect with others. If you are alone or feeling lonely this holiday season, offer to volunteer at a food bank or other non-profit for a cause that you support. Google “volunteer holiday opportunities 2021” for opportunities in your area. You can also look for community events of interest, or bring a holiday treat to your neighbors.
  • Be realistic. Life is not a Hallmark movie. Holiday gatherings don’t really look like the ones in commercials. Have realistic expectations about all aspects of your holiday including the gifts you can buy, parties you host or attend, and meals you prepare.
  • Plan ahead. Realistic expectations are helped along with careful planning. Have a budget and stick to it for gift buying.  If you’re doing the holiday cooking, plan your menus, write a shopping list, and create a timeline of when each step of the meal needs to be done to avoid missteps and last-minute scrambling.
  • Say no. Part of planning includes knowing how much time you have to realistically get everything done in addition to your usual long "to do" list. Don’t hesitate to say no to invitations or requests for your help with holiday events. If you don’t have the time, kindly but firmly say no. Most people understand this is a busy time of year because they’re busy, too.

Managing Difficult Conversations

In these polarizing times, try as you might, it’s not always easy to avoid controversial topics. Arguing will not only increase everyone’s stress level, but can also lead to hurt feelings or fractured relationships. If differences can’t be set aside, here are three ways to navigate your way through the conversations:

  • Talk about your feelings rather than the facts that support your beliefs. Facts can be argued, but your feelings can’t be debated (at least not successfully).
  • Use humor to deflect questions or comments that could lead to arguments or controversial topics.
  • Be clear about your boundaries. Kindly but firmly say, “We aren’t going to talk about this anymore.” Then ask a question about a neutral topic or something you all enjoy like a good movie or a sports team.


Taking Care of Your Physical Health

The best way to avoid the physical effects of stress is to keep doing the healthy things you should be doing throughout the year.  In fact, you've seen many of these healthy habits referenced in my posts on colon cancer, dementia and congenital heart defects. As a reminder, here are four things that are especially important during the holidays:  

  • Exercise Daily. Do something active every day. That doesn’t mean buying a gym membership or buying anything at all. Walking or gardening can be good exercise. Nor does exercise have to feel like a workout. The American Heart Association suggests several activities that you and your family can easily integrate into your day. Some, like dancing, playing with a pet or charades, are so much fun they won’t even feel like exercise.
  • Maintain a Healthy Diet. Believe it or not, “healthy snacking” is not an oxymoron. Here are some tasty treats that will satisfy your snacking urges not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.
  • Get Enough Sleep. The amount of sleep you need depends on your age. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night.  
  • Take a Time Out. This isn’t the stand-in-the-corner kind of time out. This is really about taking time out for yourself. Holidays can be filled with an extra amount of activity and company. Even if you’re an extrovert, you need time to recharge your batteries. In addition to sleep, take some time out during the day for meditation, yoga, or simply to be alone in a quiet relaxing space.

COVID Precautions

With COVID cases on the rise (again), we all need to continue being vigilant about staying safe. To help you avoid having this add to your stress level, the CDC offers this guidance for navigating your way through the season:

  • Protect those not yet eligible for vaccination such as young children and those who are immune compromised by getting yourself and other eligible people around them vaccinated.
  • Wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth if you are in public indoor settings regardless of if you are not fully vaccinated or vaccinated.
  • Outdoors is safer than indoors.

Click here for the CDC’s full list of recommendations, including travel-related precautions.


In addition to the resources I’ve already referenced, additional information for managing holiday stress can be found on the American Psychological Association website.

Finally, remember this: If despite your best efforts to manage holiday stress, you’re still experiencing potential stress-related symptoms and they are not diminishing, see your doctor or a mental health professional.


Topics: mental health, stress

Kim Mcilnay, BCPA

Written by Kim Mcilnay, BCPA

I am the founder of Together Patient Advocates, LLC. I combine my past experiences as a Family Physician with my current experiences as a patient with chronic illness to provide insights into medical care patient advocacy.

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