Most people call this the most wonderful time of the year.  But for many, it’s also one of the most stressful times of the year.  It certainly doesn’t have to be that way though.  Make the season more enjoyable by stopping stress in its tracks with these tips.

1. Focus on what’s most important – That massive pile of holiday cards needs to get mailed.  Everyone’s doing Elf on the Shelf so you need to as well. You need to bake cookies for school. You’ve got numerous holiday parties to attend.  Sound familiar?  Refocus on what’s most important to you. Only spend time doing things that actually bring you joy and outsource the rest. Buy the cookies if you don’t like baking. Forget about the cards or do e-cards instead.  If you are overwhelmed with all the parties, prioritize the ones that will make you happiest and decline the rest.  Ask yourself: “Which are the most important things to me?” and let go of the rest.  And above all, make time for yourself, because you are important.

2. Stop “shoulding” all over yourself – As humans, we are always changing and adapting. When we fail to think of ourselves as a continual work in progress, we have a tendency to start to impose a lot of “shoulds” on ourselves. “I should spend $X on my nephew’s Christmas present” or “I should go to the party I was invited to” or “I should have the house all decorated for Christmas”.  Many times, these are undue expectations.  If you stop the “shoulds”, you may be free to live without the guilt and pressure that has a tendency to escalate this time of year.

3. Stick to your daily routine, as much as possible – It is especially easy to lose your normal routine during the holidays, due to festivities and the special occasions that tend to happen.  Don’t abandon your healthy habits.  Keep your usual routine of diet and exercise, which is especially important when holiday foods and drinks come around. Try keeping a calendar to keep better track of your schedule.

4. Get outside – Natural elements are essential parts of all of us and yet many of us fail to get outside, especially as winter sets in. Just a few minutes a day in the elements can be a refreshing de-stressor during the holidays. Choose a place that inspires gratitude in you. Getting out in nature during the winter months is not only a great recharge, but also a great reminder of the wonderful gifts that surround us.  And if it’s too cold to actually be outside in the elements, drive to your favorite lake or forest and just sit in your car with the window cracked a little.  This can be helpful too.

5. Go easy on the sugar – When it comes to the holidays, there are often late nights of hot chocolate and Mom’s famous sugar cookies. Not to mention all the treats that end up in the break room at work.  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, that plagues many at this time of year, 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.

6. Breathe – To help your body and mind calm down, practice mindful breathing such as the ­­4:7:8 breathing technique. It really works. Seriously. Do this 3-5 times and you will start to engage the parasympathetic (relaxing) nervous system. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4, hold your breath for 7 and then exhale through our mouth for a count of 8. You’ll be feeling calmer immediately.

Another good breathing technique is a little simpler.  Take a deep breath in through your nose, then as you breathe out through your mouth, sigh and actually make the sighing sound.  Continue to do this until you start yawning.  Once you start yawning, resume your regular breathing pattern.  This technique will effectively reset your stress response, at least temporarily, and you can do it whenever needed.

7. Take care of yourself – The most important thing you can do in times of stress is to take care of you, both mentally and physically.  Don’t abandon healthy habits and do your best to stick with your daily routine and make it a priority.  Make sure to get adequate sleep and exercise. Work to maintain a healthy diet full of leafy greens and stay hydrated. Take a breather and enjoy some warm herbal tea. Stick to treatments that replenish and nourish your body, like acupuncture or massage.  Both modalities can help lower stress levels, boost your immune system and leave you feeling relaxed.

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.  And who needs more anxiety around Christmas?

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