Men and women have different kinds of holiday stress, in my experience. I fret about:

  • getting the overseas packages mailed by the deadline
  • buying, wrapping and delivering just the right gifts for just the right cost to everyone on my list – and not giving anyone the same thing we gave them last year
  • getting the family feast on the table approximately on time
  • eating too much and sleeping too little
  • making sure everyone has a wonderful time

My husband gets stressed about:

  • having to choose a gift for me

Whether your stress looks like mine, my husband’s or something in between, there’s no doubt that this can be a difficult time of year. And short of hiding out for the holidays on a remote Caribbean island, it’s pretty hard to avoid it, especially if your family is looking to you to make the magic happen.

So how do you do December without losing your mind? Here are a couple of suggestions for coping with holiday stress from my own experience, and some wisdom from the experts.

Not my circus, not my monkeys

This is an old Polish proverb that essentially means “not my problem.” I’ve taken it a step farther in this context to mean we should aim to actively manage what we can control (like which invitations to accept and what to serve for the family feast), and let go of the responsibility for what we can’t (like traffic jams, bad weather and cantankerous ol’ Uncle Fred).

Take that feast, for example: Totally my circus. So after years of unproductive angst, I took control of the situation by making a work-back schedule. It helps me ensure that everything will be ready on time and I don’t leave the homemade cranberry chutney in the fridge or forget to make the gravy (both of which I’ve done). My family laughs at my schedule, but it definitely reduces my stress level.

And as for Uncle Fred: Not my circus…

Is this really necessary?

Take a hard, clear look at all the things you do every year. Ask yourself if anyone will miss something if it doesn’t happen. Some things are non-negotiable, of course, but I’ll bet others are optional nice-to-haves – or even things that nobody appreciates or even notices but you. That said, if there’s an unnoticed detail that brings you joy, make it a priority.

I still send Christmas cards, for instance, with a chatty letter enclosed. I’ve considered stopping, but truth is I really enjoy writing that old-school letter, and re-reading those from years past. But too many midnight baking blitzes have taught me to bake my special coconut-cherry-chocolate chip cookies only if I know I have an entire Saturday free to do it. If not, no cookies. And if anyone moans about it, I’ll hand over the recipe.

Healthy vs. unhealthy ways to cope with stress

Mental health experts agree: It’s important to take action to deal with holiday stress.

“Stress results when demands exceed our ability to cope,” says the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). “The good holiday news is that it is possible to manage stress well. After all, life is never stress free and we can successfully cope with it.”

And how you cope with stress can be healthy, like making time for physical activity, getting enough sleep, doing relaxation exercises – or unhealthy, like eating and drinking too much.

“People tend to reduce their stress in ways they have learned over the course of time because they turn to what they know,” says the American Psychological Association (APA). “You may take comfort in unhealthy stress management techniques just because they’re familiar, even though they’re not good for your health. But, there are other behaviours you can learn to further relieve stress and its effects that may be both healthier for you and longer lasting.”

5 holiday stress-busting tips from the experts

  1. Make sure your expectations are realistic. “Are your expectations based on what is possible or only on what you hope will happen but never has?” asks the CPA. “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. If your siblings have never gotten along at a family dinner it is not likely that anything will change unless they make some commitment to behave differently.”
  2. Stay connected. “View the holidays as a time to reconnect with people,” says the APA. “Additionally, accepting help and support from those who care about you can help alleviate stress.”
  3. Practise patience. “Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations,” advises the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). “And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.”
  4. Look after yourself. “Take a breather,” urges the CMHA. “Even 15 minutes doing something to clear your mind and restore inner calm – like taking a walk at night to star-gaze, listening to soothing music or reading a book – can be refreshing enough to let you handle everything you need to do.”
  5. Get professional help. “When stress leads to distress like anxiety or depression that are persistent and get in the way of accomplishing your usual activities, it can be a good idea to contact a general health care provider or one who specializes in mental health problems,” advises the CPA.

Whether you view this time of year as a sacred or a secular celebration, here’s hoping the holiday season will be a time of peace and joy for you and your family.