For many, our December to-do list feels like the ninth verse of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The end is somewhere in sight, but we’ve got a lot to get through before the final note. From holiday shopping and cooking to juggling parties and the kids’ winter concerts, it’s no wonder we’re stressed.
Thankfully, Delia Chiaramonte, M.D., and Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, have stress-reducing advice to tackle whatever life throws at you this month (and long after). And if striking a Warrior Pose doesn’t come naturally to you, no worries. “Reducing stress doesn’t have to be yoga, acupuncture or sitting cross-legged doing meditation,” D’Adamo points out.
Name your stress. All stress can be categorized by inside vs. outside and changeable vs. unchangeable, notes Chiaramonte, who is the associate director and director of education at the Center for Integrative Medicine. Inside stress is what we create ourselves, such as thinking that if the house/food/gift/party isn’t perfect, we’ve failed. Outside stress — travel, finances, making the food, getting the house ready, the fact that your in-laws’ open house is the same night as your work party — may be changeable or unchangeable, but all inside stress is theoretically changeable.
If an outside stressor is changeable, consider changing it. Can you have groceries delivered or order gifts online? Hire a bartender for your neighborhood caroling party? What part of the holiday dinner can be takeout? You can’t change a canceled flight or your mother’s uncanny ability to push your buttons, but you can control how you react. Chiaramonte recommends “filling up your cup, emotionally and spiritually in advance,” so that you’re prepared when something unplanned happens.
There’s no place like om for the holidays. Meditative practices take many forms, D’Adamo explains. Take a walk and think about each step. Admire the beauty of your neighbor’s decorations (without comparing them to yours). Listen to your favorite music or take a warm bath (or both). Play with the dog. Start a gratitude bedtime
ritual of naming three to five things you were thankful for that day. Get app-y: Chiaramonte uses and recommends apps Head Space, Calm and Buddhify to help her manage her stress and encourage mindfulness.
Whatever you choose, make a conscious effort to be in the moment. “[During the holidays] there are all those precious moments that you want to savor,” says D’Adamo, who directs the center’s
research. If we spend our time and effort making every moment perfect, we risk missing the joy we’re trying to bring.
Put yourself on your list. Self-care is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and
others, and both Chiaramonte and D’Adamo agree that getting enough sleep is paramount. And be kind, unwind. “Taking time out for yourself from the hustle and bustle to relax is very important,” D’Adamo says. The method — a massage, movie or leafing through a stack of magazines while the kids play Minecraft — isn’t as important as doing it.
Try a belly laugh. Whether it’s Will Ferrell in an elf suit or a cat video, D’Adamo recommends watching something funny before bed and every morning. The science is real: Laughter lowers blood pressure, anxiety and perceived stress. Extend the healing power of a good chuckle by deepening social connections. On the way to dinner at Aunt Mimi’s, think of a funny, favorite family memory to share. And it’s a great strategy to change the subject when your cousin (outside stress) starts spewing angry politics during dessert.
Eat, drink and be merry (within reason). Our neurotransmitters need a healthy diet — whole foods, leafy greens, proteins and healthy fats — to help us feel calm and joyful. If you devoured a load of latkes or demolished the gingerbread house, don’t beat yourself up. “The stress of that holiday eating can induce is hard for a lot of people,” D’Adamo explains. “Recognize that you make the best choices you can. Try to treat each meal as a new beginning.”
Just breathe. Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Hold that breathe for seven seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for eight seconds, preferably with a “whoosh” sound. D’Adamo recommends doing this for three to four cycles. “It only takes a minute or two, and it’s shown to physiologically reduce the ‘fight or flight’ stress response and calm people,” he says.
Get going. Another potent stress reliever is physical activity. Go ice-skating, dance to some holiday tunes, take the steps at the mall. If you’re already exercising regularly, don’t sacrifice your run/walk/Body Pump class when the holiday schedule starts to fill up.
Know that everyone’s holidays are imperfect. It just may not look that way on Facebook and Instagram. Social media can stir negative thoughts (“everyone’s life is better than mine”) that create inside stress, Chiaramonte says of the hard-to-avoid habit of constantly checking our feed. “If social media decreases your inside stress, or at least doesn’t increase it, then I think it’s fine,” she says. If it does, “use less social media or work on reframing your negative thoughts.” And remember: It’s hard to be in the moment if you are posting about it.