©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

articles200408You can Manage Holiday Stressors Successfully

Hear the word holidays and the word stress often follows quickly in its wake. Examples abound. I observed these three quite recently:

  • “I absolutely hate holidays—everything goes into fast forward. It’s so stressful!” The young woman shouted, grimaced, gestured dramatically, and disappeared into the break room.
  • Further down the hallway, a colleague burst through his office doorway, forehead furrowed, body radiating coiled tension. He paused in midstride long enough to mutter, “Holidays! Talk about stressors! It’s the pits!”
  • In the quiet room the Chaplain shook her head ruefully. “I just spoke with your patient,” she told the physician confidentially. “The woman’s parents separated nearly fifty years ago on July 4th. She still dreads that holiday and considers it the most stressful time of year for her....”

Stress is Here to Stay

Stress is simply the word for what happens when you ask your brain and body to adjust to a change. Asking your body to move from one chair to another is stressful—a request for change. Having said that, stress is part of life and lets you know that you are alive. The absence of stress is death.

Any change in routine can be a stressor. Since holidays usually involve changes in routine, they can contribute to one or more of the following types of stress:

  • Eustress - positive stress that you choose to embrace, like getting married or going back to school or changing jobs
  • Distress - negative stressors that you would be wise to avoid when possible, such as going through bankruptcy or failing to take good care of yourself
  • Mistress - stressors that you fail to recognize, such as too much time spent in front of a computer monitor or long commutes to and from work

According to Webster’s Dictionary the word holiday denotes a time when one is exempt from work, or an opportunity to commemorate an event or a period of relaxation¾even a vacation.

The word stress, on the other hand,refers to a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter existing equilibrium (balance). That makes the term holiday stress something of an oxymoron—a combination of incongruous words. It also helps to explain the reason that something designed to be relaxing can end up being a major stressor. It is difficult to commemorate an event with relaxation and pleasure when you are in a state of bodily or mental tension!

Identify Your History

Think about your most stressful holiday. What is your history related to this holiday? Is it good, neutral, or awful? Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating abject dread and 10 indicating joyful anticipation. You may find it helpful to use the Holiday Stress Grid that follows.

Someone asked me the other day if my holiday memories were positive, negative, or neutral. Pondering that question, it quickly became clear that mine were a mixed bag. During part of my childhood we lived on the Canadian prairies. My brother and I joked that we could expect about three days of hot weather each year. Memorial Day weekend was a signal that summer might be just around the corner. If the weather cooperated we could wear short sleeves and pedal pushers to the annual spring picnic, and start on a tan. Memorial Day weekend was definitely a favorite!

December holidays were a different story! They arrived with snow and more snow, often piled higher than a horse’s head. And with the snow came wind. Sometimes it coated bare tree limbs with shimmering hoarfrost or drove ice crystals through the tiniest cracks in doorjambs and storm-window frames. And the cold. Relentless, bone-jarring, unforgiving, biting, 30-or-40-degrees-below-zero cold! Curled up with a favorite book in front of the fireplace (if there had been a fireplace in our home) would have been one thing. Bundled in layers of protective gear and going from house to house singing carols and requesting donations for food baskets was another. No, December holidays were not a favorite of mine!

Which holiday or celebration event is most stressful for you? Think beyond national celebrations—Christmas/Hanukkah, New Year’s, Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, July 4th, or Labor Day. Any event that commemorates something important or momentous in your life may actually have a greater impact on your brain (e.g., the anniversary of a birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, miscarriage, layoff, bankruptcy, or death).

Your Brain is Unique

Every brain on the planet is believed to be different in structure, function, and perception. This means that your perception of what constitutes holiday stress and the magnitude of its impact will be unique to your brain, as well. Your perception will be influenced by a whole host of factors, including your own innate giftedness (e.g., individuals with introverted brains may find holidays to be overstimulating and energy-exhausting), past experiences, expectations, beliefs and attitudes, perceptions, and personal preferences, to name just a few.

Strategies for handling stressors need to work for your brain. Some have estimated that half of most people’s problems result from the way they think. Hmm-m-m. Imagine changing the way you think about holiday stress and dropping half the problems off the back of your metaphorical turnip truck.

You may have approached your most-stressful holiday or celebration event from agrin and bear it stance—if you couldn’t avoid it altogether you just tried to survive the inevitable. Unmanaged holiday stress can contribute to everything from depression to death. There can be a better way. Managed effectively, these celebration events can add spice, enjoyment, and meaning to life. Give yourself five gifts and a lagniappe….


#1 – Manage Your Expectations Carefully and Realistically

Everyone has expectations. Period. They can perhaps be most harmful when you don’t realize you even have them, have not identified them consciously, or have no plan for dealing with them efficaciously. Your learned responses related to expectations may be causing you needless stress.

Holidays and other anniversary events typically involve traditions and rituals. Many expectations revolve around traditions and rituals. Whether or not they’re functional and desirable or have completely outlived their usefulness, traditions and rituals are powerful—so powerful that in some cultures they can result in death.

Jot down your expectations. Are they mature, realistic, and doable? If not, revise your expectations and post them where you can see them easily. Make a clear decision to be true to them. You may need to do some pre-holiday negotiations and implement more appropriate personal boundaries.

An ounce of prevention before the holiday arrives is worth ten pounds of cure afterward.

For example, if you expect Great Aunt Lily to affirm everyone in general and you in particular, even though she hasn’t thrown a kind word anyone’s way in 50 years, your unrealistic expectations can set you up for major stress. If you expect your erstwhile nephew to show up stone sober, even though he’s been spiflicated at every family gathering his entire adult life, get ready for stress!

If, on the other hand, you expect the usual and set personal limits that work for you, any improvement in the situation or behaviors can be viewed as a bonus.

The words of Kahlil Gilbran speak eloquently to expectations:

We choose our joys and sorrows—long before we experience them.

Create and implement realistic expectations. Avoid getting caught up in the agendas of others or sucked into hype and commercialism. Above all, expect to be successful!


#2 – Learn to Upshift Quickly

According to my mechanic, an automatic transmission is designed to use the most efficient gear for the specific environmental conditions. Compare the three functional layers of your brain to an automatic transmission with three gears. Under situations of trauma, threat, or crisis¾when the going gets tough¾the brain tends to downshift looking for functions to promote safety.

Whether it is your vehicle’s automatic transmission or your brain’s ability to refocus energy and attention, downshifting is helpful when used appropriately. Under the doctrine of “you usually give up something to get something,” when your brain downshifts unnecessarily or stays downshifted for too long, you may:

  • Fail to recall what you heard
  • React automatically (reflexively, instinctually) or overreact
  • Follow old learned beliefs and behaviors regardless of available information
  • Be prevented from learning and/or generating solutions for new problems
  • Experience altered immune system function and brain chemistry
  • Accelerate the aging process

It is important to recognize when your brain has downshifted so you can upshift as quickly as possible. To do this, increase conscious awareness of your own key stressors, patterns, and symptoms:

  • Stressors - What are your top ten stressors? Are they individuals, substances, thoughts, noises, locations, tasks, foods?
  • Patterns - What is your most common habit pattern? Do you exhibit symptoms at specific times of the day, week, month, or year?
  • Symptoms - What are your top three symptoms? Do you experience changes in heart rate, breathing, body temperature, energy levels, or attitude? Do you start sighing heavily or become internally reactive?

Getting a handle on your stressors, patterns, and symptoms is a form of insurance. You are ready for whatever happens. This knowledge can serve as an early warning system to alert you when your brain downshifts. Then you can implement your preplanned strategy to upshift. Over time, conscious awareness can kick in about the same time as the first stress symptoms make their appearance.

Dig to uncover core issues. Be honest. Create a collage of what happens to your brain and body when you are confronted with holiday stressors. Picture in your mind’s eye what your body looks like and how you behave. Create a new picture of what you want your body to look like and how you want to behave. This gives your brain a map to follow. With a bit of forethought you may be able to avoid a specific stressor altogether, limit your exposure, or minimize the stress reaction.

Develop a pre-planned strategy to get your brain upshifted. The fastest way for me to upshift is to think of something humorous—and then choose to laugh about it. Both those functions reside in the conscious thought part of the brain: third gear, if you will. If I can recognize something is funny and can choose to laugh about it, I’m upshifted.


#3 – Reboot Your Brain with Brain Breathing

Using the metaphor of a computer, learn to reboot your brain. At the first sign of a stress symptom, break the cycle¾within the first 6-7 seconds if possible.The sooner you do this, the fewer stress symptoms you’ll likely experience. You may be able to avoid downshifting altogether or at least return quickly to an upshifted state.

Brain breathing is a simple technique that can be used almost any time, anywhere, and can be accomplished in a matter of seconds. It is designed to ensure that a sufficient amount of oxygen gets into your blood stream. As you may know, oxygen comes into your lungs through the air you breathe and is then transferred to red blood cells that transport the oxygen to cells in your brain.

Growing up, you may have been taught that the best way to breathe was to stand up straight, stick out your chest, and hold in your abdomen. It turns out this is not an optimal position for deep breathing. Abdominal breathing is the ticket!

The formula for brain breathing is:

  • Breathe in through your nose to a count of four
  • Hold your breath while counting to twelve
  • Exhale through pursed lips to a count of eight

At the first sign of a stress symptom reboot your brain by brain breathing. As a preventive tonic, I usually take a dozen brain breaths every day, preferably in pure fresh air. If someone asks me what I am doing I respond, “Brain breathing. Please join me.”


#4 – Hone Your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional intelligence—the ability to bring intelligence to your emotions—is important to your overall success in life. It may even be more important than I.Q. Emotions are internal signalsthat alert you to what is going on around and inside you. They connect your subconscious with your conscious mind and give you information and energy with which to manage a variety of situations safely and appropriately.

You are much more likely to store information in long-term memory when the encounter contains an emotional component. That’s likely why holiday memories can be so impactful—euphoric or abysmal! Ignoring your emotions or pretending they don’t exist is generally unhelpful. So is permitting them to take over your life. Emotions are just signals.

When you react out of proportion to any given situation, the overreaction usually relates to the past and may have little, if anything, to do with the current moment. In other words, the reason is never the reason. Something about the present situation reminded your brain of something in the past, and brought the emotional force of that memory to bear on the present moment.

If you catch yourself beginning to overreact, stop, breathe, observe, and evaluate. Ask yourself what there is about this situation that may have reminded your brain of something from your past? Identify that “something,” bring it to conscious awareness, and deal with it appropriately. Consciously working this process can help increase your level of EQ.

Marcus Aurelius taught that when you are upset by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it. You have the power to alter your estimate (thoughts about it) at any moment. When confronted with a stressful situation, I have found it helpful to imagine the worst thing that can happen, decide if I can live with it, and then take appropriate action to minimize negative outcomes. Actually, the worst-case scenario rarely materializes.


#5 – Keep Your Life in Balance

A balanced, high-level-wellness lifestyle is important all the time but especially necessary during holidays. Determine to take good care of your brain and body¾and then actually do it! Make generous deposits into your stress-prevention bankin terms of sufficient sleep and relaxation, adequate water intake, daily exercise, nutritious food, positive mindset, humor, play, and nurturing relationships (e.g., friends, co-workers, family/family-of-choice, partner, Higher Power) just to name a few.

Be judicious about your intake of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. Avoid placing yourself in situations that you know from past experience either push you to get out of balance or are likely to trigger a stress response.

Illness, minor injuries, accidents, and depression often increase during or following holiday periods. This is often due, at least in part, to allowing some aspect of life to get out of balance. It’s much easier for stressors to trigger illness or overreaction when you are living an unbalanced life. Even a good thing taken to the extreme can be detrimental. Treat yourself to a consistent high-level wellness lifestyle. It’s great insurance and can pay huge dividends over time.


Lagniappe – Live the 20:80 Rule

The word lagniappe (pronounced lan-yap) first crossed my conscious awareness some years ago in New Orleans. During a tour of antebellum homes, pre-Katrina, my guide explained that she was giving us a lagniappe. She went on to say that this Creole term meant something special, a little bit extra, or an unexpected surprise. On that occasion, our lagniappe was a delicious Louisiana pecan praline.

Think of the 20:80 Rule as your lagniappe. It represents wisdom that Epictetus shared with the world more than seven centuries ago. This philosopher believed that only about 20% of the impact to your mind and body was related to the event (i.e., what happens to you), while 80% was due to your perception of it (i.e., the importance you assign to it).

The 20:80 Rule is an elegant way of saying that holidays and commemorative events will likely be a stressor in some way or another. The event represents the 20%. You may not choose to—or even be able to—eliminate the 20%.

What you think about the event, the weight you place upon it, and the importance you assign to it represents the 80%. You can do almost everything about the 80%.

Actually, one of the few things you can control are your thoughts. You can exercise a surprising amount of control over stressors by managing your thoughts and, if necessary, changing the way you think. That’s the difference between efficiency (doing things correctly) and effectiveness (doing the correct things).

You can reframe the importance. When you clearly understand that anything that comes out of another person’s brain is only that brain’s opinion, you will likely avoid arguing, stop taking things personally, and actually get a chuckle out of many situations. Another brain’s opinion has nothing to do with yours unless you choose to make that so.

The 20:80 Rule was the ticket recently when I brought my “famous” cherry-apple pie (well, some of my family and friends call it that) to a community potluck. Over the dessert table a casual acquaintance asked, “Did you put sugar in your pie?”

“Yes,” I responded. "It contains Xylitol.)

Without even a pause to take a breath, the individual continued with, “Well! If you had any brains you should have known that I was recently diagnosed with diabetes and can’t eat sugar. And if you had any milk of human kindness flowing through your veins you would have made the pie sugarless for my sake!”

I blinked, chuckled, and applied the 20:80 Rule. “Thank you for sharing that information with me,” I said. “Another time let me know in advance that you will be present and if I’m able to attend I’ll bring a sugarless dessert.”

Now it was her turn to blink. She did, twice, and then said, “Well, that doesn’t help me today.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “It doesn’t help you today, at least not for this pie.” End of discussion.

Did I enjoy her confrontation? Not particularly. Did it knock me off center and ruin the event as it might have for me half a century ago? Heavens no. It was just her brain's opinion, unique to her, and I could choose to pick it up or let it go. I chose to let it go.


Give yourself these five gifts and a lagniappe. When practically applied, they can make all the difference in your response to holiday stressors. Come to think of it, they can make all the difference in the rest of your life!


Holiday Stress Grid


Write down the name:


[ ] Good

[ ] Neutral

[ ] Awful

Stress Scale:

1 Minimal
2 Some
3 Moderate
4 High
5 Off chart

Your Present Expectations:


Are your present expectations mature, realistic, and doable?


If not, how you could reframe your expectations?




Write down one strategy you can implement now:




How can the 20:80 Rule help you with this strategy?