Whether you’re a die-hard Christmas fan or someone who just wants to get it over with, the holidays are full of high-stress moments. We often get so busy leading up to the holidays that we forget to be intentional about our planning and purchasing, and then we end up buried emotionally and financially. Instead of being a season of rest and celebration, the holidays are often frantic—and even painful. Even when we plan ahead, holiday stress can sneak up on us.
What Is Holiday Stress?
Holiday stress (or any kind of stress for that matter) is our mind and body’s response to the pressing responsibilities and demands of our lives. Stress is normal. When we experience a threat—whether it’s holiday traffic, passive-aggressive family members, or a family fight over Christmas dinner—our brains flood our bodies with stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. Our bodies prepare to take action. Our heart rates spike. Our pupils dilate. Our muscles tighten.
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In the short term, stress can be helpful. It keeps us focused and alert. But living in a chronic state of stress causes horrific damage to our mental and physical health. It’s like slamming your foot on the gas and the brakes at the same time. Eventually, the car engine melts, the brakes fail, and we run the car into the ground.
The holidays should be joyful and restorative, but they’re often demanding. And this season, we’ll need to give ourselves and others some grace—a lot of it. Make no mistake: Stressful events will happen. But here’s the exciting thing: We get to choose how we respond to those events.
13 Ways to Reduce Holiday Stress
Refusing to let stress run your life is a daily choice. The key is to be intentional, plan ahead, and make choices that are easy to live out. This year, let’s put in the extra effort to get our minds and hearts in a good place before we head to Mom and Dad’s house for Christmas dinner . . . or before uncle Eddy plans his annual surprise visit.
To help you along your journey, I want to share 13 ways you can reduce the holiday stress (before it comes) so you can spend your time on what really matters to you.
1. Clearly picture the Christmas you want to have.
Set expectations for yourself and others by painting a picture of what you want your Christmas to look like. Who’s sitting around the table at mealtime? What are you all eating? What are you talking about—or not talking about? Are you laughing with your kids as you make Santa-shaped pancakes? Or are you holding hands with your spouse in front of the fire? Maybe you dusted off the old vinyl Christmas album, and you’re jamming away.
Whatever it is, keep that picture at the front of your mind. Share your picture with your loved ones so they can understand where you’re coming from. Ask them to paint a picture of what they want too so you can choose to honor them.
And if something comes up that threatens to take the place of what’s truly important to you and your family, give yourselves permission to say no. Let your calendar and to-do list reflect your picture of Christmas that you want to experience.
2. Set boundaries.
Over the holidays, you get to decide where you go, how long you stay there, who you invite into your home, and how much money you’ll spend. It might feel like your mom, father-in-law or second cousin will be calling the shots.
Wrong. You choose.
It’s important to set boundaries before you’re knee-deep in Christmas festivities. The last thing you want is to find yourself fighting about politics with your grandma or discussing vaccinations with your father-in-law. Without boundaries, everyone loses.
Before you commit to anything, decide what your limits are for traveling or for hosting guests. Is it three days? What about two weeks? If you’re married, talk to your spouse and create a plan that works for both of you.
By the way . . . don’t drive or fly thousands of miles to a place that’s inhospitable and threatening. You can say no. But once you decide and commit to seeing family, you must do it with a good attitude. Choose to find joy in the hard moments. It’s called acting like a grown-up.
3. Avoid family conflict.
Even the best families can drive you crazy. So this year, before you even pack your bags, spend some time thinking about the potential conflicts that will pop up with family. If your dad has a pattern of talking bad about a particular group of people, don’t be surprised when he begins one of his rants. You can’t change him—but you do get to decide how you respond. You can ask him to stop, or you can get up and leave. Settle in your heart and your mind what you will and won’t tolerate.
Then, create a plan of action and send an email ahead of time to make it clear that you don’t want to talk about politics or your little brother’s addiction. And if someone violates that agreement while you’re there, you get to walk out. Pay attention to when you feel uncomfortable, awkward, unsafe, embarrassed or trapped. If someone is drunk or angry or using foul language, you get to decide to walk away.
4. Focus on what you can control.
There are only two things on planet Earth you can control: your thoughts and your actions. That’s it. You can’t control what your parents say around the dinner table. You can’t control your kids’ attitudes. And when you choose to let go of what you can’t control, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of stress in your life by refusing to carry other people’s problems.
In stressful seasons of my life, the first thing I do every morning is make a list of what I’m stressed about. Then I write down the things that are in my control. Everything else gets tossed in the trash. Take control and ownership of your thoughts and actions and do what’s best for you and your family.
5. Know your role in the situation.
Sometimes we experience stress because we’re taking on roles no one asked us to carry. For example, if you’re going to your girlfriend’s house for Christmas and you have to sleep on the uncomfortable couch and eat their weird food, remember that you’re not the star of the show. It’s not your house. Keep your mouth shut and know that your role is to support your partner.
And if you’re the one inviting your significant other to family dinner, be a gracious host or hostess. Remember that your guest is missing out on their traditions. Ask them about what they normally do or any special foods they like to eat and recognize they might be sad they’re missing out on time with their family.
6. Say no.
I love Christmas as much as the next person, but no matter who you are, it’s absurd to try to attend a million white elephant parties, ornament exchanges, and all the cookie decorating parties.
Listen: You can’t be everywhere at once. Be really honest with yourself about what you can handle, and speak up if it’s too much. Instead of going to five Christmas parties, pick one or two. Prioritize your family’s time and only commit to what you want to do. It’s all about quality, not quantity. Again, you get to choose.
7. Limit your time on social media.
There’s an overwhelming amount of information, nonsense and news in our country right now. Not only do we see it on our TVs, but now we’re seeing it through our social media feeds. It’s literally making us insane.
If you hear anything from me, hear this: When you’re stressed, stay off social media. Those perfectly curated Instagram and Pinterest feeds won’t do anything but allow you to compare your holiday plans to your weird coworker’s plans (who you don’t really even like anyway). Social media pictures are fantasy. They’re not real. They don’t show the burned turkeys, family fights and mounting piles of credit card debt.
This Christmas, spend more time looking into your loved one’s eyes than staring at your screens. Hold hands, not video game controllers. Throw a football or kick a soccer ball—in real life. Choose human connection, joy and laughter over thumbs-ups and retweets. Each one of your electronic devices comes with an off button. Use it.
8. Make a Christmas budget.
Do it. Right now.
A budget is creating boundaries for your wallet (or bank account). And budgeting helps reduce stress because it gives you a plan for your money. Make a zero-based budget every month before the month begins.
Remember, you get to control your thoughts and actions—including your spending. You get to decide where every single dollar in your bank account goes. Budgeting for Christmas will help you avoid the impulse purchases or spending too much on those white elephant gifts. There’s nothing worse than waking up the day after Christmas broke with no idea where your paycheck went. So make a budget and stick to it. You’ll be glad you did.
9. Don’t overdo it on the sugar.
You really can have too much of a good thing. And when it comes to the holidays, that often looks like late nights of hot chocolate and Mom’s famous sugar cookies. But too much sugar messes up your natural hormone responses, your blood sugar and insulin levels, and your brain’s neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers).
Mix that with a lack of sleep (from all that caffeine and alcohol) and a packed schedule, and you’ve got the perfect storm for a rush of anxiety. Limit how much sugar you eat and feed your body with nutritious food as much as possible.
10. Get plenty of sleep and stay healthy.
Anxiety affects at least 40 million people in the U.S.1 And one of the most powerful tools you have to reduce anxiety is sleep. When you’re not getting enough sleep, your brain’s emotional centers become overactive, which increases anxiety levels. So, instead of staying up late for the third night in a row to binge Hallmark movies, prioritize your sleep. Not only will it keep your stress and anxiety at bay, but it will also help your immune system stay healthy.
And don’t forget to get outside and move. I don’t care how cold it is—put on some extra layers and just do it (or at least get into the gym as often as possible). Exercising gives your body a way to process and release stress hormones, and nature is important for our emotional and physical health. So, bundle up and go on your own Christmas lights walking tour or get an epic snowball fight going in your neighborhood (play is exercise too). Anything is better than nothing!
Being sick at Christmastime is the absolute worst—but exercising, getting outside, and resting are all immune-boosting activities that will help you feel strong, peaceful and healthy.
11. Protect your downtime.
This is a season of giving, but don’t give so much of yourself away that you have nothing left to give. If you keep your peace and quiet, you’ll keep your sanity. Make time to enjoy the things you love. Read a book. Do a Christmas devotional. Keep your joy intact by creating some breathing room between parties, travel schedules, deadlines at work and shopping trips.
Another key is to try to stick to your normal routine. If your average day starts with waking up, pouring yourself a cup of coffee, and reading the newspaper, don’t skip it. If you exercise every day, keep exercising. Keeping your routine helps you stay calm and focused on the day ahead. Plus, it’s a great way to stay sane—especially when you’re sharing a bathroom with your in-laws.
12. Ask good questions.
I’m willing to bet you don’t get to see your extended family all that often—so when you do, why not take time to get to know them on a deeper level? Instead of making awkward small talk and asking them vague stuff like, “So . . . what’s new?”, really dig in and see if you can learn something about them you didn’t know before. Be curious and not judgmental.
Ask your grandparents for their best piece of marriage advice. Ask your 5-year-old nephew which superhero he’d want to be and why. And if you need some help thinking of fun, silly or interesting questions, check out these Questions for Humans Conversation Cards.
13. Make connection your number one priority.
I like to say that relationships are your emergency fund for life—so I invite you to think of this season as a chance to stockpile those funds. Make people your top priority. Christmastime is meant to be filled with joy, thankfulness, lingering conversations over the dinner table, and lots of laughter. But connection doesn’t happen by accident. You must be intentional. Don’t get so caught up in the mania that you forget to enjoy the people you’re doing all this for.
And do your very best to respond well to holiday stress this year. Yes, it’s super annoying when great-aunt Becky keeps pinching your kids’ cheeks—so honor her and protect your kids by being prepared with a polite request for her to stop. Stress is part of life, so let’s do our part to be gracious and generous with ourselves and the people we care about.
While stress is normal and even healthy for us, if we don’t listen and respond to it, our stress will quickly morph into anxiety. I’m super passionate about helping people be well, and as someone who’s personally prone to anxiety, I’m excited to share my Quick Read, Redefining Anxiety, with you. In this short book, I’ll break down the four biggest myths we believe about anxiety and give you some practical steps you can take to start getting your life back.