Make joy a priority and relieve holiday stress

November 27, 2023 Swedish Behavioral Health Team


In this article:

  • There is a lot to look forward to during the holiday season, and we can make the most of it all by prioritizing joy in ways that support our mental health and wellbeing.

  • Everyone experiences stress and learning what triggers our stress can help us anticipate and manage it.

  • Working on healthy habits one at a time, throughout the year, can help you prepare for the busyness of the holiday season.

Make joy a priority and relieve holiday stress 

The holiday season ushers in a whirlwind of festive activities and family gatherings. While celebrations abound this time of year, the holidays also come with their fair share of stress and challenges. The pressure to create picture-perfect moments, navigate family dynamics and meet everyone's expectations can quickly take a toll on our mental and physical health — but with a mindful approach and some easy-to-incorporate holiday stress relievers, we can successfully manage holiday stress to experience a happier and healthier season.

Prioritizing joy is one way we can manage stress during the holidays, according to

Angie Christiansen, MSW, LCSW, a provider with Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing, because it helps us identify what is really important to us, set boundaries and ultimately share our joy with others.

Schedule time for fun

“The reason we look forward to the season is our anticipation of joy,” says Christiansen. “As the holidays approach, block time on your calendar for things that truly bring you joy.”

This act of strategic calendar planning is a first step in putting your wellbeing first. Marking dates on the calendar for the things you want to do is an important step in priority setting. Not only does it make it more likely that you’ll get to enjoy the things you love most about the holidays, it can also help ensure that you don’t overcommit to other events and activities and experience burnout later in the season.

Identify your stress triggers

Overindulgence is a common reaction to stress, and the many opportunities to overindulge during the holiday season can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.

To minimize unhealthy indulging and its impact on our wellbeing, Christiansen suggests identifying and naming your stress triggers and documenting how your body reacts to them. These steps can help:

  1. Imagine a stressful situation. Write it down and describe it.  
  2. Does the situation make you feel stress in your body? Describe where and how it feels.
  3. Identify a coping skill you can use to minimize the stress. This might include deep breathing, getting fresh air or checking the facts of the situation.
  4. Rehearse how you will manage the situation. Include your thoughts, actions and what you will say.  
  5. After rehearsing, practice the coping skill you identified in Step 3.

These quick steps can help strengthen your ability to cope with stressful situations and avoid unhealthy behaviors (like overindulging) that undermine your mental health.

Set healthy expectations and boundaries

The holidays are full of expectations — we look forward to reuniting with friends and family, honoring special traditions, and taking in the sights and sounds of the season — but balancing our expectations with the expectations of others can quickly add up to a sense of overwhelm. To minimize those feelings, Christiansen emphasizes the importance of identifying who and what is most important to you during the holidays:

  • Look at your calendar. Mark the events that are most meaningful to you and block time for any responsibilities, chores, errands or other obligations you want to make sure you fulfill.
  • Consider your finances. Set a budget or spending limit that will help you feel confident about the holiday purchases you make, as well as spending on dining and events.
  • Check the expectations you have for yourself and others. Are they reasonable and respectful of your time and energy?
  • Proactively set boundaries. Ask yourself what invitations, favors and requests you are willing to accept and where you want or need to draw the line.
  • Take time to respond to invitations and requests. Practice saying, “I’ll get back you to you” and give yourself permission to decline later.

“When people invite you to do things or ask you for help, you don’t need to respond immediately,” says Christiansen. “Give yourself permission to take your time, check your calendar, think about what you can realistically commit to, and make a decision that fits with your needs and schedule.”

Develop a go-to relaxation strategy (or two)

Sometimes it can feel as though depression and anxiety come out of nowhere. Experiencing these emotions suddenly can leave you feeling helpless and disoriented. When you find yourself in a stressful moment, it helps to have a strategy you can use to calm your nervous system and help your body relax.

To relieve stress in the moment, you can:

  • Take a few deep breaths. Try a timed deep breathing technique to increase the levels of oxygen in your body, calm your mind and find focus.
  • Change your body temperature. Lowering your body temperature will reduce your heart rate which can lower feelings of overwhelm. Try the diver’s reflex and press a cold, wet cloth or ice packs to your face, the back of your neck and your chest.
  • Raise your heart rate. A short burst of exercise will raise your heart rate and help you clear your mind. Try running in place, doing jumping jacks or jumping rope for three to four minutes.
  • Get outside. Spending time in nature engages all five senses, improving your mood and lowering feelings of stress. 

Gradually build self-care practices year round

Many of the stresses that we experience during the holidays aren’t that different than those that we encounter all year long. Sharpening your stress management and self-care skills throughout the year can help you get better at taking care of yourself with every holiday season that comes along.

Christiansen emphasizes that to be successful when developing healthy habits, it is important to focus on one at a time. Trying to do everything all at once is hard, and can leave you feeling deprived and defeated if you don’t follow through on your goals. She recommends working on the following practices one-by-one:

  • Staying hydrated. Drinking an adequate amount of water supports your overall health and mood.
  • Eating a well-balanced diet. Don’t eat too much or too little and eat mindfully.
  • Getting enough sleep. Aim for at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night and practice good sleep hygiene, including a consistent sleep schedule.  
  • Avoiding mild altering substances. Drink alcohol and caffeine in moderation and avoid illicit substances.  
  • Exercising regularly. Move your body a little bit every day if you can. Even just once in a while is better than nothing at all.

Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about behavioral health services or would like to schedule an appointment, contact Swedish Behavioral Health. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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