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Holidays can be stressful, even in the best of times. For many, there are gifts to buy, meals to plan, family and friends to connect with, homes to decorate, and the need to recover from it all. On top of this, the holidays bring about complex emotions for many of us, including missing the people and traditions that we no longer have in our lives. And of course, all of this occurs as we continue to face everyday concerns like work, health, school and family. Balancing it all is a big request. So what can you do to help manage stress as it comes creeping in during these joyful times?

Prepare by identifying your stressors.

“Odds are things that have stressed you out in the past will stress you out again this year. Humans are creatures of habit and we tend to fall into the same mental, behavioral and relational traps over and over again until we make the choice to do something different,” explains Aimee Brickner, PhD, LPC and Program Director of the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at our Richmond campus.

To prepare, Dr. Brickner suggests reflecting on the last holiday season. “If there was something specific that made you anxious, sad or frustrated, find a way to change it this year,” she advises. “For example, if you cried in the kitchen as you did dishes while other family members relaxed together, recruit help in the cleanup process or use disposable plates and cutlery. Just because you've done things a specific way in the past does not mean you need to continue traditions that lead to additional stress.”

Plan ahead when possible.

Prevent stress before it happens and stay on top of your to-do list by planning ahead. When it comes to shopping for food or gifts, creating a plan and a budget can help you save time and avoid buying more than you need. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, write down everything you need to do and organize it by priority. If any item still feels unmanageable, break it down into smaller, more actionable steps. After you know what needs to happen and what’s most important, figure out when you can complete each item – and don’t forget to save time for yourself to relax, rejuvenate and do activities you enjoy!

Take care of your overall health.

During these busy weeks, try to follow the healthy habits that remain important year-round, like getting a good night’s sleep, regular exercise and healthy eating. Let yourself enjoy the occasional tasty treat, but practice moderation and be sure to incorporate fruit, vegetables and sources of protein throughout your meals. Likewise, go for a walk outdoors when the sun is shining, or workout inside the house to boost your energy and spirits when it’s cold outside. Routine and self-care are always important but especially so when you’re feeling stressed.

Connect with others when you need support.

If you’re struggling with something, tell a friend or family member what’s on your mind. If talking on another Zoom call feels like too much, try a socially distanced walk in the park instead. In some cases, others can simply offer a friendly ear, but they may also be able to lend a hand to make life a little easier. Talking with a trained mental health professional can also help you to sort through and manage your emotions and stress.

“This year will likely be a very different holiday season for many families who are struggling with loss on a variety of levels. Some folks have lost loved ones to death and many of us are experiencing the loss of a typical holiday with our extended family and friends,” says Dr. Brickner. “These losses are compounded by so many other challenges that 2020 has thrown our way – virtual schooling, working from home and lack of social gatherings.”

For dealing with that experience, Davele Bursor, EdD, CPC, and Adjunct Professor at South University, West Palm Beach with expertise in bereavement, agrees on the importance of finding connection. “We need to allow ourselves the moments and catharsis to express our emotions and feelings to those who are supportive of our grief,” she says. “Allowing our feelings to be expressed lowers our stress levels and enables us to stay resilient and healthy.”

Practice self-compassion and gratitude during difficult times.

“Grief reactions can certainly remerge during the holidays. This is quite normal and understandable,” shares Dr. Bursor. At these moments, Dr. Bursor recommends honoring and expressing our feelings. “We will always love and miss those who were a special part of our lives. Look at pictures, albums, videos, texts and cards from those we have loved with appreciation and remembrance,” she says. “Let this be an opportunity for healthy self-validation, emotional closeness to others and the wonderful chance to celebrate current and past loved ones in our lives.”

Get comfortable saying no.

Say no to things you don’t have time for or don’t enjoy doing. You have no obligation to say yes to everyone. As long as you’re polite, don’t feel guilty for turning down an invitation to another gift exchange, a virtual or in-person gathering or any other request that doesn’t excite you. For those in recovery, saying no is doubly important. Dr. Brickner advises, “Be very aware of your triggers and avoid situations that are likely to exacerbate them. Know who you can count on to be supportive during the holidays and reach out to them often.”

Let go of perfection.

Avoid setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and your family that may be emotionally, physically or financially overtaxing. “Hallmark movies and Pinterest make perfection feel attainable, but it's not,” Dr. Brickner reminds us. “Nobody wants you to try and make everything perfect if it comes at the expense of your own happiness and mental health.”

Try not to compare your holidays to anyone else’s or to years past. In fact, it’s natural for each holiday season to look a little different. One lesson this year has taught us is to focus on what matters most and ditch the rest. By changing what you do this holiday season, you may even find a new tradition you’ll maintain for years to come.

Make time to enjoy the season.

The holidays can be stressful but they also offer a time to celebrate special memories along with past and new traditions. As this year looks different for all of us, take the time to enjoy the rewards of the hard work that you put into making these traditions special for yourself and for others. The spirit of the season is to give the gift of kindness – and that includes being kind to yourself. What you planned has made a difference to those around you, so recognize and be proud of the joy you’ve brought into the world.

If you’re interested in helping others with managing their mental health, our programs in the areas of Counseling & Psychology may be right for you.

To learn more about the degree programs offered at South University, request information to talk to our admissions team today.