Holiday Stress: 3 Ways To Wrap It Up

Dec 8, 2015 | Stress

More to do, especially for women

Most of us already lead busy lives. Juggling daily responsibilities may already feel like a delicate balancing act, especially for women who, often on top of work, are usually coordinating the family’s social calendar, chauffeuring the kids, getting the meals, and performing most of the household duties.

When you add to this the holiday decorating, meals, parties, planning and gift-buying, it’s no wonder that stress is on the uptick this time of year. This, too, is not gender-neutral.

A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that close to half of women in the United States feel added stress during the holidays, compared to fewer than a third of men.

3 ways to reduce holiday stress

1.  Set realistic expectations. 

Expectations of flawless holidays abound. External messages in the media suggest we can create the perfect party, decorations, gifts and meals if we only put in the effort or shop at a certain store.

Add to this a common internal pressure to get it just right or to please others, and it’s easy to get off track or lose perspective.

I’m much better now than I used to be, but over the years I have wasted many hours searching for the right present. I have noticed that this is more likely to happen when I’m already feeling depleted. No wonder, as research now shows that high levels of stress hormones hamper our prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with decision-making. (Stay tuned for a future post on this.)

Remember that perfect doesn’t really exist, and other people’s happiness is not contingent upon what you buy them. Be realistic in your expectations, and plan shopping decisions for times when you are more refreshed and focused.

2.  Stick to healthy habits.

As I see in clients and in my own history, when we are pushed to the max, we often sacrifice self-care for the sake of getting things done. Unfortunately, doing so adds to your stress.

Not surprisingly, the same APA survey also found that the pressure of the holidays often leads people to unhealthy coping habits. Turning to comfort food, for example, was one response to the stress; and again, this affected women more than men.

Even if you have to scale back, don’t skip the gym or yoga. Don’t skimp on sleep. And while you shouldn’t deprive yourself of your favorite foods this time of year, notice whether you are indulging to escape or to enjoy. Too many sweets, alcohol and processed food will deplete your energy and make it harder to cope with stress.

3.  Practice compassion. 

Compassion can soothe your stress. It is a feel-good behavior that can activate your brain’s pleasure center and calm your nerves.

Research has shown that acting with compassion causes our bodies to release endorphins, the hormones associated with joy and excitement. Oxytocin, for instance, which is also released during childbirth and breast-feeding, helps ease anxiety and inflammation associated with stress.

And research done with brain images has shown that acting with kindness registers in the brain as similar to eating chocolate!

If you do nothing else differently this year, simply practicing more compassion in these simple ways will ease your stress:

  • Self-compassion. Give yourself a break. Let go of perfectionism, pleasing everyone, and over-committing. Pay attention to rising angst and fatigue. Commit to some downtime and self-care.
  • Compassion towards others. This could be giving others a break, like the tired sales clerk or harried person in line, or the person who forgot to send the card or gift. This could be supporting people in need or donating to a charity.
  • Connect with those who are important to you. Make time to get together with friends and family. Don’t let holiday demands take the place of a nice get-together with someone who could be needing some company, support or just a friendly ear.

When you practice compassion, you calm your nerves and ease your stress, so not only will you feel better, but so will those around you.

What’s your holiday stress strategy?

How are you feeling about the holiday season this year? What are your strategies for getting through? Could compassion be better than chocolate?!

I’d love to hear your comments. Or if you enjoyed this post, email or share it using the icons below.

Happy wrapping!


  1. Hannah

    Excellent blog. Jennifer. I love your idea of scheduling in some downtime, so have put some chillax days on the calendar to create some space just to relax and enjoy!

    • Jen

      Thanks, Hannah. Great to actually put it in your calendar. Well-deserved, I’m sure. Enjoy!

  2. Liz Calder

    Bravo! Jen – I will read what you have written, take it all to heart – it’s all good. I plan to live to 100.

    • Jen

      Thank you! You are a hearty soul.


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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