Richard Blonna, PhD, author, life coach and stress-management expert, offers five simple strategies for managing holiday stress. His approach to managing the worry and anxiety associated with holiday stress is adapted from his new book, Stress Less, Live More; How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Can Help You Live a Busy Yet Balanced Life.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a values-based approach to managing stress and other psychological problems. One of its main objectives is to help people set goals and live lives that are consistent with what they value. Values give direction to people's lives and are central to defining who you are as a person. According to Blonna, "Because our values are so important to us, stress commonly occurs when our values collide with each other."
This often happens over the holidays when family, friends, and other loved ones come together and visit. Many people value family yet struggle with family-related values and conflicts that crop up over the holidays. For example, you might value small intimate dinners with just a few family members but your visiting parents want to bring the whole family together at your house. You might value sharing simple, meaningful yet inexpensive gifts but your siblings like to buy expensive, trendy gifts for you and your children. You value classical music and good conversation but your uncle wants to put the football game on and shut off the music.
To cope with holiday stress, try the following 5 tips.
- Clarify what you value about the holidays before making any plans. Finish the following sentence stem with as many endings as possible: "The things I value about the holidays are..." When you are done, rank your holiday values from most to least important.
- Set reasonable goals for your top three values. It is better to break goals down into smaller objectives that answer the question: "Who will do how much of what by when?" This will make it easier to meet your values-based holiday goals. For example: Top value: "Family." Goal: "Visiting my family over the holidays." Objective: "I will visit my mom and dad, aunt Millie and her family and my uncle Bob between Thanksgiving weekend and the weekend after New Year's."
- Accept the pain and suffering that accompanies the joy associated with the holidays. Seeing your family may dredge up some old painful thoughts, feelings and mental images. ACT has found that the worst thing you can do when these painful thoughts and feelings arise is try to control, avoid or eliminate them. This only makes them worse. The best way to deal with them is to accept them. Tell yourself: "I am willing to co-exist with these painful thoughts and feelings in the service of ... value (fill in the value: family, etc. )."
- Work in some daily physical activity or exercise. The stress response mobilizes energy and creates muscle tension. If you don't dissipate this through physical activity it has nowhere to go and will cause irritability, insomnia, fatigue and muscle pain.
- Take a few good breaths several times a day. Every day take a few moments to calm yourself by becoming more mindful of the present moment through diaphragmatic breathing. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Put your hands on your belly and slowly exhale completely through your nose. As you inhale slowly through your nose notice the feeling of the air travel in through your nose, down your windpipe, and all the way down to the bottom portion of your lungs closest to where your hands are resting. As you slowly fill your lungs from the bottom up feel your belly rise and push on your hands. When your lungs are completely full pause for a moment and notice how this feels. Slowly empty your lungs and notice the feelings in your chest as the air exits your body. Continue to notice the sensations in your nose, windpipe, lungs and belly as you breathe in and out for a few breaths. Repeat this a few times a day.