How is it that multi-colored lights, sweet treats, and gift-giving too often translate into overwhelming stress, frustration, and exhaustion?

The number-one reason, according to Jonna Fries, Psy.D., director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at California State University, Los Angeles, is that so many of us have unrealistic expectations of what the season should look like. This can deter many from enjoying end-of-year festivities, she cautions.

Managing your expectations is often easier said than done, especially with stressors that include too little time; strained finances; pressure to find the perfect present; struggling to balance work and family; overeating; and dealing with difficult relatives.

"Planning ahead by creating to-do lists and shopping lists will help you stay organized and on track," says Susan Krikorian, certified health education specialist and a health educator at the Klotz Student Health Center, at California State University, Northridge. "Prioritize what's most important, set limits, and learn to say 'no' or postpone things that can wait."

According to the American Psychological Association, the holiday season is also a time when many report experiencing feelings of sadness, loneliness, fatigue, and plain old irritability.

Dr. Fries, her Cal State LA CAPS colleagues, and Krikorian offered more sound advice on managing stress during the holiday season in our interview:

Q: With the holiday season kicking off earlier every year, many of us feel stressed earlier than in years past, too. What are some ways to manage stress during the ever-lengthening holiday season?

Dr. Fries: Boundaries are very important during the holidays. If your family is intolerable, make plans to do something else. If you want to be with family, but they're challenging or draining, try to take breaks by exercising, seeing friends, perhaps not staying in the same home as those family members, and maybe shortening your visit.

Finances are often difficult during the holiday period; only spend what you can afford. If you have money saved for tuition or for something in your future, don't think of that money as available for gifts. Your presence is the most important present.

Focus on helping someone else or plan something special for yourself, especially if you tend to get sad and lonely around the holidays. If you don't have family to spend the holidays with, find some meaningful volunteer work to keep you busy or plan to spend them with another family. We all have a biological family and some of us have created a "logical" family — one made up of friends who treat us with dignity.

Krikorian:  Try deep breathing or guided meditation apps to help clear your mind and center yourself. Reach out and connect with others, volunteer, and seek support when you need it.  And remember, healthy habits like eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and limiting the use of alcohol will help you better manage the stress that comes along with the holidays.      

Q: What are the most common causes of stress this time of year?

Dr. Fries: Family, money, overeating, being sedentary and not having a regular routine. Also, comparing yourself and gifts and your family to other families or other unrealistic or superficial ideas about who people are or what families "should" look like. Many of our traumas come from our families; if we have not worked through them and developed solid coping skills, we tend to get triggered when we spend time with family. 

Krikorian: One of the biggest causes of stress this time of the year is the increase in responsibilities that come with the holiday season, including hosting or attending parties, visiting family and friends, shopping, baking, wrapping; the list goes on. Sometimes having too much to do can leave us feeling stressed, but the opposite is also true: The holidays can bring on feelings of loneliness or sadness for those who have lost loved ones or may be socially isolated. 

Q: Anything else to keep in mind as the demands of the season get more intense?

Dr. Fries: Identify five things you can do on your own to lift your spirits. Some might listen to music, exercise, paint, sing, pet their animal, cook, etc. Be kind to yourself; take time for yourself to recover from tense family gatherings and be realistic about what you can expect from family and friends. 

Krikorian: Expressing gratitude can create many personal benefits, such as better health, stronger relationships, a greater sense of happiness, and a higher overall life satisfaction. Take time to reflect on the good things in your life, start a gratitude journal by writing down things you're grateful for, tell your family, friends, colleagues or professors that you appreciate them, or send a 'grati' text (a text message to tell someone you are grateful for them).   

Q: What are some tips specific for college students finishing up coursework and preparing for finals at the end of the semester?

Dr. Fries: Try to stay focused on the present moment and set necessary boundaries to prioritize your education. Remember that the holidays are temporary and enjoy your time off.

Krikorian: As a wellness coach at CSU Northridge, one of the recurring topics I tackle with students is time management. Learning to manage your time effectively is, in my opinion, one of the most important lessons to learn in college. Students can take advantage of campus resources like counseling services or student health centers. 

 

​​​Dr. Jonna Fries' Top 6 Stress-Relief Tips

  • Exercise every day.

  • Pay attention to your health and well-being.

  •  Make a list of five things you can do to lift your mood and keep the list with you.

  • Stick to your holiday budget (and don't feel guilty about it).

  • Set realistic eating goals, but leave room for flexibility.

  • Take time to process what's bringing you down with a therapist or friend, especially if you have to spend time with a difficult relative.