UNC Health Care
Illustration of gift box covered in words related to holiday stress.

Five Ways to Beat Seasonal Stress

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! But wait—it’s also the most stressful time of the year. Everyone’s to-do list seems to be ever-expanding, and with all the effort and planning it takes to make the holidays jolly, it can feel like a thankless job. Our efforts to make the holidays memorable and perfect can lead to a lot of stress.

When that happens, our bodies release a stress hormone, called cortisol, that shuts down systems in our bodies that we’re not using, including the reproductive, immune and digestive systems. This increases glucose in the body and causes it to produce more insulin to control our blood sugar. As a result, the reaction may increase our appetites and lead to stress eating, weight gain and difficulty losing weight.

We accept this stress as a normal part of the holiday season, but it really doesn’t have to be. So, how can you combat stress and its negative effects?

Here are five simple steps to help you through the holidays:

1. Breathe.

Do you know that most of us breathe out of only the upper part of our lungs? Taking deep breaths and truly filling your lungs with air improves your circulation, slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. So when your in-laws, parents, children, siblings or spouses are pushing your buttons this holiday season, try taking some deep breaths before you explode.

2. Exercise.

Exercise reduces stress. That’s partly because physical activity bumps up our production of endorphins, and endorphins help us feel happier and more content. Find an activity that you enjoy that doesn’t feel like exercise. For example, you could walk for 15 minutes around the neighborhood looking at your neighbors’ decorations or do something else you consider fun.

3. Eat Healthy.

It’s all too easy to make unhealthy food choices during the holidays, when junk food is plentiful and stress levels are high. Preventing stress eating begins with being a mindful eater. Plan your meals before you eat to avoid extra calories. At holiday parties, notice all of the options before you prepare your plate. Splurges are OK, but consume the smallest amount necessary to satisfy your craving. When you build your plate, make sure you can still see the bottom of it.

4. Sleep.

Don’t skimp on sleep. It can be easy to do when your task list is growing and you’re preparing to host family and friends during the holidays. But keep in mind, poor sleep can affect your overall health and mood, causing you to feel anxious, grumpy or depressed. You want to be at your best during joyful and memorable times, so aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

5. Laughter.

Something doesn’t need to be funny for you to laugh—you can also just laugh to laugh. Whether it’s fake or real, laughter has the same benefits: It reduces stress, increases blood flow, improves immune response, and helps with relaxation and sleep. So, when you feel that bit of holiday stress approach, try to laugh it off.

This post was originally published in December 2013. It was updated on December 11, 2017.