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Happy chill holidays: Secrets to enjoying every minute of your seasonal gatherings
December get-togethers can sometimes bring on feelings of stress and anxiety. Here are seven ways to relax when you’re gathering with family or friends.
Are you planning to spend the holidays with family or friends? You may be looking forward to good food, good people and good cheer. But seasonal gatherings can also bring their share of stress and anxiety.
You can’t assume that all that time together is going to be “restorative,” points out Michelle G. Paul, PhD. She’s a psychologist and the executive director of UNLV Practice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In fact, a 2022 poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that 31% of adults expected to feel more stressed at the holidays compared to the previous year.1
However, the winter holidays have a lot of value too. They can help you keep connected with friends and family. And spending time with your loved ones over the holidays can boost your happiness and well-being.2
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed about a busy holiday social schedule with family and friends, take a deep breath. Follow these simple tips to keep the holidays light, enjoyable and low-stress.
Secret #1: Keep your expectations in check
Longing for drama-free holidays? It’s best to let that idea go. Holding on to the fantasy of a totally smooth holiday will just set you up for disappointment, explains Paul.
Instead, recognize that everyone has flaws. (That includes you.) If you go into the holidays expecting perfection from anyone, you might find yourself being overly critical, she notes. You might get caught up in a cycle of finding fault instead of just enjoying the moment.
Solutions: “Take the judgment out of the holidays,” says Paul. Instead, pay attention to all the good things that are right in front of you. Those could include delicious food, funny stories or a cookie swap with close pals. Try to go with the flow and enjoy the moment.
Secret #2: Take a breather from social media
Life is not a seasonal TV movie. But some people you’re connected with on social media might make it look that way. You scroll through posts on your phone and see perfectly decorated homes, fun parties and happy family gatherings.
It’s easy to feel like your own festivities aren’t measuring up. But try not to compare your celebration to what you see on social media. And remember that social posts don’t always reflect real life either.
Solutions: Try doing a social media detox during the holidays. Here are some ideas:
- Make it a point to power down your screens when you meet up with friends or family.
- Place your laptop or tablet in a drawer for a few days.
- Temporarily remove the social apps from your smartphone.
You don’t have to go completely dark on your social platforms. But it may help to dial it back.
Secret #3: Set a holiday spending budget
Do your family or friends have their own holiday culture and rituals? Maybe it’s handmade decorations or big dinners around a crowded table. Maybe it’s a pile of well-wrapped gifts. Traditions play an important part in your life and keep you connected to your past.3
But the holidays can bring more expenses. And the financial strain of following every tradition with your family or friends may not be good for your mental health.4 Turns out, one of the major stressors of the holidays is how much they cost.
In the APA poll, 50% of participants were concerned about affording holiday gifts. Younger adults and people earning less than $50,000 were even more likely to worry about affording the holidays.1
Solutions: Make a holiday spending plan. Determine what your true budget is and use a budget app to help you track your spending.5 Be sure to talk to your family or friends ahead of time about their expectations. Maybe this year, just being together is the gift.
You can also try these money-saving tips:5
- Don’t buy alone: Go in on a shared gift with other family members or friends. Buying one gift together might help cut down on the cost of bigger surprises.
- Buy local: Getting gifts from your local area helps save on shipping costs. Buying local also benefits your neighbors who own small businesses.
- Buy used: Shop on online marketplaces, used bookstores or charity shops to find gently loved items.
Secret #4: Plan some downtime
A great way to handle the holidays is to divide your time up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Think ahead. In the middle of all the holiday excitement, you may need a little break to help you cope with the commotion, says Paul.
Solutions: What kind of downtime do you need to feel better? Here are some examples that can help you decompress:
- Buy yourself a spa day or massage. If that busts your budget, just have a relaxing “staycation” night in your own home. Light some candles, draw a bath and play soothing music.
- If you have kids, get a babysitter and have a date night.
- If you need time away from your relatives, schedule a meetup with friends. Or, if you’re out of town, go exploring by yourself.
Secret #5: Know your limits
Figure out what to do when your stress level spikes, Paul suggests. Give some thought to exactly what it is that makes a moment stressful. Know when you need to walk away from family members, friends or your spouse to keep the peace.
“Generally speaking, we know ourselves well enough to know what will be the thing that gets under our skin,” Paul says.
Solutions: Paul recommends asking yourself the following questions before family (or friend) gatherings: How do I want to handle stressful situations with my loved ones? And how do I want to feel?
Once you have some answers to work with, think about ways you can calm down and let off some steam, such as:
- Head out for a walk or go to the gym.
- Call up a trusted friend or family member, who’s not present, for a chat.
- Have a quick laugh. Check out a clip from your favorite comedian’s social media.
- Find a change of scenery. Hop in your car and run a quick errand in town. A few minutes away can be a big refresher.
Secret #6: Focus on your health routine
Many holiday traditions revolve around food. During the holidays, you may stay up late telling stories around the dinner table. You might eat less healthy foods and drink more than you usually do. That can be tough on your body.
Solutions: Just because it’s the holidays, it doesn’t mean you need to drastically change your habits. But here are some healthy ones to keep in mind:
- Keep your sleep schedule intact. Make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. Being well rested is great for your physical and emotional health.6
- Sneak in some exercise. If you go away for the holidays, pack your sneakers so you can go for a walk or a run. Or, if you’re sticking around, see if your gym has a holiday class schedule. (You can even exercise without leaving your home.) Or plan a fun activity that gets your whole family moving. Good options: Play soccer in the yard, go bowling, take a hike.
- Watch what you eat. Holiday stress can sometimes make you want to overeat. Try to make healthy choices at the buffet. And be mindful of portion sizes. A little bit of your favorite treat is totally fine if you don’t overdo it.
Secret #7: Go easy on your family
Try not to overthink family interactions, says Paul. Maybe your uncle keeps interrupting people at dinner, as he does every year. Or you and a sibling fall back into bickering like you did as kids.
Let it go instead of getting annoyed. Wondering who’s in the wrong or blaming others can dampen the joy of being together.
Solutions: Paul suggests reminding yourself that everyone is doing their best. “There’s a certain amount of comfort in that,” she says. “It might be nice if someone could do something differently. But right now, this is the best you can do or the best they can do. So, allow that to be OK.”
The key to chill holidays? Keep your health top of mind, plan ahead and don’t sweat the small stuff. That way, you can enjoy making memories and fun experiences with your loved ones. Because the best gift you or your family members can receive is a happy holiday.
- American Psychiatric Association. As Holiday Season Begins, America’s Stress Rises, But Less About COVID-19. Published December 1, 2022. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- Frontiers in Psychology. Feeling Socially Connected and Focusing on Growth: Relationships With Wellbeing During a Major Holiday in the COVID-19 Pandemic. Published August 26, 2021. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Future Directions on BIPOC Youth Mental Health: The Importance of Cultural Rituals in the COVID-19 Pandemic. Published June 22, 2022. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- Journal of Family and Economic Issues. The Relationship Between Financial Worries and Psychological Distress Among U.S. Adults. Published February 1, 2022. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- American Psychological Association. 9 tips to help ease your holiday spending stress. Published November 16, 2020. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This Holiday Season Is a Great Time to Focus on Health. Last reviewed April 19, 2023. Accessed October 16, 2023.
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