Do less, enjoy more

by Natasha Persaud

Expectations run high during the holiday season. We're expected to feel happy, alive, joyous and connected. But that's a remarkably tall order. So rather than attempting to do it all this season—and falling short—make balance and peace your goals. Our experts show you how to conquer holiday stress:

Tangled Image - Masterfile

Get Out of the Perfection Trap

People tend to expect too much of the holiday season, according to Martin Antony, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of When Perfect Isn't Good Enough. "You try to have fun; try to be happy; try to control how things will turn out. But it becomes something like forcing yourself to fall sleep: it's counterproductive. All that effort takes away from real happiness."

Your remedy: Adjust your expectations, and be flexible. "Let go, and learn to be more accepting of whatever occurs," says Antony. If the dinner party doesn't turn out exactly as you'd like, for example—the roast beef overcooks, a few of the guests start bickering—you'll probably cope just fine if you let it roll off your back.

"If you are convinced that your home has to be spotless and perfectly neat and organized, you'll probably wind up arguing with your spouse and ordering the kids around," he says. Demanding perfection just puts unnecessary pressure on you and your loved ones.

Challenge demanding thoughts by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Does it really matter as much as it feels like it matters?
  • Do my guests really want to arrive at a home that's neat as a pin, or will some feel more comfortable if things are not so perfect?
  • So what if a few things are not in their place?

Quiet your inner critic too. A perfectionist feels intense anxiety, shame, anger, or low mood when standards aren't met, according to Antony. If that's you, counter your negative thoughts by considering others' perspectives. "If you overcooked the turkey, think back to a party you attended where the meal wasn't perfect. Did everyone criticize the cook? Probably not. Even if some did, it's healthier to acknowledge that you can't please all people all of the time."

Be Wise About Money & Gift Giving

Talk to your kids about presents. "Especially during tough economic times, remind yourself that money doesn't buy happiness," says Samuel Gladding, Ph.D., chairperson of the department of counseling at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. "It's not the price tag that matters. Kids actually feel disappointed when their expectations are overinflated.

"Prepare kids beforehand by having a conversation. Say something like, 'Let's talk about your gifts. I won't be able to give you a bunch of presents this year, but I can give you one or two that you really want. What is most important to you?' You may be surprised by how the kids adjust."

Talk to grownups too. If you're scaling back this year, tell your friends and family members, so you won't feel embarrassed when it's time to exchange gifts. "Tell a friend, ‘I'd love to give you a gold bracelet—or whatever expensive gift you had in mind—but I can't afford it this year. Instead I'm planning to bake cookies—or do A or B—to show my appreciation," says Gladding. "It's better to take time throughout the year to express how much you care than to give a blockbuster holiday gift. The words will be far more memorable."

Stick to your budget. To avoid the stress of holiday bills, make a list of people you plan to give gifts, and note the amount you want to spend for each. The budget will stop you from buying impulsively, says Gladding.

Protect kids from financial worry. Stress can be contagious, so while you do want to talk about gifts with your children, try not to talk about money problems. "Keep those matter private," says Gladding. "Involve kids in positive conversations about spending, but avoid making them feel burdened."

Count your blessings. "Focus on what you do have, not what you don't," encourages Gladding. You'll probably find several good things worth celebrating.

Shorten Your "To Do" List

Do only what's important to you. Decide which parties and charity events you will—and won't—attend, says Sandra Finkel, MPH, manager of Stress Management Services and the Executive Health Program at the U-M Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Domino's Farms in Ann Arbor, MI. It's impossible to do it all, so prioritize. Remind yourself, "I choose to do this; I don't have to do it." Writing down your experiences and feelings in a journal can help you reflect on what is important, she says. "We have great inner resources that we don't tap into enough."

Say "no" with thanks. "Receiving an invitation is usually flattering, but if you can't attend, simply say, 'It was nice of you to have invited me, but I regret that I won't be able to make it,'" says Finkel. "Don't feel that you need to give a reason. Feeling guilty about declining is what makes it awkward." What if it's an important event, such as your spouse's office party? "Discuss it with your spouse, instead of feeling obligated. Often there are ways to negotiate. For example, you might decide to attend but stay for a short while."

Don't let fear stop you. If attending social events fills you with anxiety, the best way to conquer it is to "do it despite the fear," says Antony. A bit of pre-planning also helps: "Think about subjects for small talk—a new movie, neighborhood happenings, etc.—and decide to go and talk to someone. Make eye contact and be assertive."

Take one step at a time. Break down goals into small steps. If you're shopping for gifts, decide who you're going to buy for, how much you'll spend and when you'll shop, suggests Gladding.

Ask for help. There is a real value to sharing, that's often overlooked, says Gladding. When you need help, ask someone to join you on the errand, whether it's shopping, putting up decorations or party planning. It's a good idea to leave it open-ended, so it doesn't come across as a demand; say, "I'm doing this, would you like to help me?"

Truly Enjoy Family Gatherings

Make it more pleasant for you. If you hate going to a relative's home because everyone sits in a large gathering, and you prefer one-on-one time, change things a bit,” suggests Finkel. "For example, you might take a walk and invite someone whose company you enjoy to join you. People will actually enjoy your company more when you're in a better mood."

Declare a truce. If one of your relatives is always argumentative, don't expect that person to act warm and fuzzy now. "It's always hard to stop family feuds once they have started, but the holidays are a perfect time to call a truce," says Gladding. "Tell yourself that no matter what your relative says, you're not going to react negatively. Decide to have peace on earth—or at least in your house or with these particular people—for a few hours."

Change the subject. Every family has their touchy topics. If your brother starts to air his political views, shift the conversation to something neutral, suggests Gladding. Ask, "so what are you doing these days?" People are always interested when you're interested in them.

Don't bring it up. The holidays are a good time to keep opinions to yourself. For example, if a relative has made lifestyle choices that you don't agree with, and you've already told him or her how you feel, don't bring the issue up now, says Gladding.

Don't blow it out of proportion. There's always going to be the unexpected: cookies will burn; kids will act out. When children misbehave, it's disconcerting but not tragic. Preparing them is key: "Tell children what's going to happen at the party and how you expect them to behave," says Gladding. "If a child starts rolling on the floor in the middle of dinner, correct them, but leave it at that."

Think about the ties that bind you together. Try to view the holidays as a time to reconnect with family members. "Families share some common bonds, despite the differences," says Gladding. "Usually, we are more alike than not. Try to recall your good times."

Aim to create new memories. Memories far outlast material objects—especially when you capture special moments in pictures, videos or writing. "Be sure to have some fun with your kids by spending an afternoon together baking in the kitchen or shooting hoops in the backyard," says Gladding. "Take pictures and videos and add them to your web site or scrapbook."

Honor loved ones who have passed away. If a family member or friend has passed away, the holidays may trigger feelings of sadness or grief. "Instead of letting your emotions spiral downward into a depressed mood, decide to do something to honor your loved one," says Gladding. "For example, you might choose to volunteer for a cause that person enjoyed. A helpful exercise: Write a letter to your loved one in a journal describing your present. It may gently lift your spirits."

Take Care of Your Body and Mind

Sit, close your eyes and breathe. Take ten minutes out of your busy schedule to simply follow your breathing, encourages Finkel. Inhale slowly, then exhale. "These little breaks are surprisingly restorative. Your blood pressure starts to go down and your heart rate slows."

You can also try incorporating imagery. "Imagine that you're transported to your favorite place—past or present," she says. "Recall the sights, sounds, smells and feelings to recreate the experience."

Exercise to de-stress. "In addition to helping you stay fit, exercise improves mood and burns excess calories," says Finkel. "The holidays are the perfect time not to neglect your workout."

Don't overeat. Holiday events offer plenty of high-calorie food temptations. To prevent an upset stomach and stave off weight gain, "have a healthy snack and drink water before you go," says Finkel. "When you're not hungry, you can be mindful of what you're putting in your mouth. Choose a small portion of the dessert you really want and savor it."

Make music. Listening to music, singing or playing an instrument can trigger the relaxation response, says Finkel. So use it to your advantage. Classical music can be calming; Upbeat music can help you feel more energized.

Get a massage. A good massage will relax your tired muscles. Suggest it as a gift someone can give you, Finkel says.

Take a nap. Most people are sleep-deprived, and that's especially true over the holidays. "If no more than a half hour, a nap can be restorative without interfering with nighttime sleep," says Finkel.

By making choices that support your health and wellbeing, it's possible to enjoy a less stressful, more joyful holiday.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 30 Nov 2009

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015