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VA Palo Alto Health Care System


10 Tips to Manage Stress this Holiday Season

Woman exercising and sleeping

Getting enough exercise and sleep during the holidays can help you manage stress.

By Kellie Burdette Mendonca, Public Affairs Specialist
Thursday, December 12, 2013

Holiday stress can be triggered by almost everything: noisy and crowded shopping, not being able to find a parking space, baking 12 kinds of cookies perfectly as seen on TV, obsessive cleaning, overspending, over-entertaining, under-exercising, over-committing, or eating and drinking ourselves into a coma. We get overstressed, and too much stress affects our health, not to mention our mood. Our pets can tell if we’re stressed (and often respond in kind) and so can our loved ones. Before your family, friends and the family cat try to run for the nearest exit after watching you lose your cool, froth at the mouth and deliver unflattering gestures to total strangers, just stop. Breathe deeply. Read on.

Here are 10 tips to manage stress this holiday season:

1. Carve some time for yourself.  This includes saying “no” to things you don’t want to do, or outings you don’t want to attend (outside of work, mind you). Practice saying, “Sorry, I won’t be able to come. I already have something on my calendar.” That something can be listening to your favorite music, taking a hot bubble bath, writing in a journal, meditating, going for a massage, sleeping in, getting a pedicure, sketching, Tai Chi or Yoga class - anything that can clear your mind, slow your breathing and restore your inner calm.

2. Just say "no" to unwanted houseguests. Did you know it’s easier and far less stress to keep unwanted houseguests away than to remove them after they’ve set up camp in your living room? Here are some helpful phrases to commit to memory: “Can’t wait to see you! Do you need recommendations on some hotels in the area?” “Sorry, our house is in no condition right now for guests.” “You’ll be coming to San Francisco for the holidays? Great! You will love this new hotel that just opened…” “Sorry, our dog vomits uncontrollably when people stay over.”

3. Stick to your budget. Find out how much money you can afford for food or gifts, and then don’t try to “buy happiness” with extravagant presents that put you in the poorhouse. Instead, consider giving a homemade gift, crafts, something yummy from your kitchen, or the gift of something you can do for another person. You could write a poem or create a handmade card with a coupon to cook a meal, wash the car (theirs), run an errand, babysit for a day, repair something broken, or walk the dog (especially appreciated if the gift recipient has a dog).

4. Recognize and acknowledge your feelings. If you can’t be with loved ones, or there’s been a divorce or death of someone close to you, it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. Resist the urge to hide under your goose-down comforter all day, emerging only to inhale an entire platter of cookies. The holidays are not a time to be alone. Reach out to others, volunteer, be with others who can make you laugh and feel good about yourself. Social contact is an excellent stress reliever because it can distract us from sadness, stress and loneliness.

5. Rethink that long list of holiday cards. Do you think your friends keep your cards with the photo of just your children or pets (that took you a week to get the perfect shot)? Do you imagine they enjoy your typed generic holiday letter gushing about how well you’ve done in the past year, when they may be unemployed? Have you considered how much you could save on postage? You don’t need to send cards to folks you see every day, and for your faraway friends, you can send a heartfelt, original handwritten note; or call or Skype your friends and family to give the gift of personalized, real-time communication.

6. Set aside differences. This is not the time to showcase your needling sarcasm and snubbing skills due to past (imagined or real) hurts inflicted on you by your loved ones and friends. Try to accept everyone as they are, even if they don’t live up to your expectations.  Try to be understanding if others get upset.

7. “Bring your Own” situations. Respect your limits. If you’re in recovery from alcohol or other substances, do not bring these items to a party. Instead, consider cider, hot cocoa, teas, coffee mixes, sparkling juice or water, something non-inebriating that you can enjoy. If you do drink alcohol at a gathering, do not drive.

8. Take good care of yourself. If you’re too stressed your immune system will become vulnerable and you may get sick. Not something you want for the holidays. You know what to do: Get enough rest, drink enough water, eat wisely, keep up regular physical activity, don’t over-commit, dress appropriately for the weather, take time to laugh, breathe deeply to de-stress, surround yourself with positive people, and get your flu shot!

9. Have the courage to seek professional help. If you persistently feel sad or full of anxiety, are unable to sleep, feel irritable and hopeless, overwhelmed by physical complaints, or are unable to start or complete routine chores, talk with your provider or mental health professional. Professional counselors can help you discover the source of your stress and provide you with useful coping techniques.

“Don’t assume you’re going to feel bad during the holidays,” says Associate Chief of Mental Health Services John McQuaid, PhD. “But if you’re having a hard time doing the things you usually do, it might be time to check in with your provider. Your VA primary care doctor knows how to assess and get you the help you might need during a tough time.”

Mental health services provided at the San Francisco VA Medical Center include a full range of psychiatric and psychological services, substance abuse programs, PTSD, military sexual trauma, mental health intensive case management, and psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery.

10. One number you should keep handy. Veterans in crisis may call the Veterans Crisis Line, which connects Veterans, their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and loved ones can call (800) 273-8255 and press 1; or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24/7.

Breathe. You've got this. Happy holidays!


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