7 Ways to Beat Holiday Season Stress

Editor’s note: This article originally ran November 22, 2021, and was updated November 11, 2022.

Even in “regular times” — remember those? — the holiday season could be stressful. Long to-do lists, high expectations, pressing end-of-year deadlines, family drama and financial strain all love to show up in December.

These, of course, aren’t regular times. We’re dealing with viruses, social and political division, and lots of bad news.

All this is reason to go easy on yourself whenever possible—maybe you don’t need to send cards to 100 people or bake cookies for all the neighbors.

“Although stress is normal, it doesn’t have to be miserable,” says UNC Health clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller, PhD. “What you do in the face of stress impacts how you feel, how much you’ll be able to enjoy the holidays and how long it will take you to recover afterward.”

Try these seven simple steps to help you through the holidays:

1. Breathe.

When you breathe deeply, you combat your body’s stress response, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and boost your immune system. So when your in-laws, parents, children, siblings or spouse are pushing your buttons this holiday season, try taking some deep breaths before you respond.

2. Exercise.

Exercise reduces stress. That’s partly because physical activity bumps up our production of endorphins, body chemicals that help us feel happier and more content. Find an activity that you enjoy that doesn’t feel like a chore. For example, you could walk for 15 minutes around the neighborhood to look at your neighbors’ decorations or dance to holiday music with your kids.

3. Eat mindfully.

It’s easy to make impulsive food choices during the holidays, when junk food is plentiful and stress levels are high. Preventing stress eating begins with being a mindful eater. Focus on what you’re eating, how it tastes and when you feel full. At holiday parties, notice all of the options before you prepare your plate: Those peppermint cupcakes look good, but you might see another dessert that looks even better.

And don’t beat yourself up if you eat more than you wanted to; focus on next steps that can help your body feel better, whether it’s drinking a glass of water or doing some light stretches.

4. Sleep.

Yes, you have a lot to do. But instead of skimping on sleep, consider it one of your most important tasks. Poor sleep impairs your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to colds and other infections. It can also affect your overall health and mood, causing you to feel anxious, grumpy or depressed. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

5. Laugh.

Laughter has been shown to reduce stress, increase blood flow, improve immune response and help with relaxation and sleep. When you feel your stress building, put on a funny movie or call a friend who always makes you chuckle. You might not feel like doing it, but you’ll be happy that you did.

6. Do something nice for you.

During the holidays, you’re busy trying to make everyone else’s day, baking your children’s favorite cookies, choosing a gift for their teachers and making sure your in-laws are comfortable in your guest room.

First, try to give yourself permission to not do everything and to be imperfect. Cross off tasks that aren’t essential or delegate them to your spouse. Second, don’t forget to do nice things for yourself, too. You don’t have to spend money—though you can! Think soaking in a quiet bath with a book, taking a walk by yourself or buying yourself that present you really want, anything that brings you a little pleasure alleviates stress.

7. Focus on connection.

Many holiday traditions involve getting together with the people we care about the most. Rather than focusing on how it should go or whether you oversalted the gravy, focus your attention on the quality of your connection with others; this will help the holidays feel more joyful. (And ask for help if you need it.)

Slowing down to play games with the kids, making an extra phone call to Grandma or talking a walk with a friend can go a long way to help you feel less stressed and make the holiday special for everyone.

Feeling overwhelmed by stress? Talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.