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Coping with holiday stress

Stress seems unavoidable this time of year, but there are things you can do to ease the pressure
Stress seems unavoidable this time of year, but there are things you can do to ease the pressure

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

December 21, 2012 — It may be the most wonderful time of the year -- but for many Canadians, the holidays can be a huge source of stress.

Teagan and Jack enjoying the holiday lights in Brampton, Ontario (courtsey: Krystal Disch)
Teagan and Jack enjoying the holiday lights in Brampton, Ontario (courtsey: Krystal Disch)

There's a lot going this time of year. From the shopping, to the winter driving conditions, to the lack of sunlight, it's easy to become overwhelmed.

Stress is a common characteristic of the holidays and according to experts, a lot of it has to do with the unrealistic expectations many of us place on ourselves.

The cold isn't helping: While winter weather isn't directly linked to stress, Sarah Hamid-Blama, Director of Mental Health Promotion for the Canadian Mental Health Association, says that the cooler months can have a negative impact on well-being.

Dropping temperatures can result in less physical activity and contribute to social isolation. Throw into the mix an overindulgence in rich foods and a lack of sunlight, and it's a recipe for the winter 'blahs' -- a phenomenon that affects roughly 15 percent of the population.

"It's a funny time of year for stress," Sarah says. "There are a lot of protective factors for many people: More connections with friends and family, more balance in thinking about work, more time for sleep and laughter, more fun activities. But of course, there are a lot of risk factors, too. There’s the pressure and expectation of getting things perfect or avoiding family conflict ... And a lot of people face grief and loss this time of year."

Krystal Disch knows a thing or two about stress.

In between balancing work and holiday planning, she's also raising 20-month old twins, Jack and Teagan.

Her holiday plan of attack is complete and utter surrender.

"I don't beat holiday stress. I wave my white flag, and then I push through and get everything done," she says. "Sort of."

For Krystal, this can be one of the most stressful times of the year, because for her family, Christmas is the "big" holiday.

"The weather adds to the stress for sure," she says. "Big coats, clunky boots, hats, mitts, scarves .... it takes us forever to get out of the house, and then it's hot in the car and in the stores. Then there's the cooking, the shopping, the wrapping, the cleaning, along with all the other daily activities of life. But that being said, I do really love this time of year, with the lights, the smells and the Christmas spirit that seems to come out."

Try to cut back on over-spending
Try to cut back on over-spending

While the occasional tinge of stress may be unavoidable this time of year, there are a few things you can do to ease the pressure.

Divide and conquer. "Choose the traditions you want to keep and learn to say no," Sarah suggests. "Sometimes we do things 'just because' .... and not because they really matter to us."

Ask for help. If you're a first-time mom, "don't be afraid to admit you're struggling. Ask for help," Krystal says. "Parenthood is by far the toughest - but most rewarding - adventure of your life."

Simplify. Turn dinner into a potluck, or pare down your holiday costs by organizing a Secret Santa. "Try to come up with a fun way to make gift-giving fun and affordable," Sarah says. Over-spending and holiday debt can be a huge source of worry, so try to cut back when possible. According to survey conducted in 2010 by RBC, the average Canadian spends $1,137 on Christmas each year, including gifts, food, decorations and entertaining.

Maintain your routine. "The things that [tend to] help us cope better are the things that people tend to throw out the window when they’re stressed, and then they feel worse. Sleep, diet, exercise, social support, healthy thinking, realistic expectations, spirituality ... don’t stop these things because of a lack of time," Sarah says.

Give back. Sharing your dinner table with a neighbour who is alone for the holidays - or volunteering within your community - are what the holidays are all about. 

And last but not least, talk things out with someone you trust.

"It’s important to remember that when we get stressed, it means that we’re not able to cope with the demands being placed on us," Sarah says. "We may not have control over all demands placed on us ... but self-care isn't a luxury. If you make new year’s resolutions, think about making one about maintaining your mental well-being. You never know, it may actually make the other resolutions easier to achieve!"

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