It's no secret that the holiday season has the potential to be as stressful and sad as it can be love-filled and joyous.

Sure, we get to reconnect with friends and family we may not see enough of during the year—and exchange presents and enjoy elaborate home-cooked meals with them. But we also have to plan for those events, and pay for them, and forego a lot of our regularly scheduled life in the process.

Budgets get blown during the holidays. So do sleep schedules and diets. And spending time with the people we love best often means spending an equal amount of time with the ones who drive us most crazy. 

Keeping the holiday scales tipped in favor of joy can be tricky work. But we've got you covered: Use the tips below and you'll not only get through the season with a minimum of holiday stress, you may be able to enjoy it more. 


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Sidestep Stress

We toss the "stress" word around so much these days that it’s easy to forget what it actually means.

Stress is a physiological response to a change in our environment; it involves the release of certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When the change is one-off and quick, like abruptly swerving your car to avoid an accident, the hormone surge is short-lived.

But when changes are persistent, as they tend to be during the holidays, the stress response becomes chronic, and the body pays a price (among other things, chronic stress impairs immune-system function).

Try some of the following to control your own cortisol levels: 

Set a sensible schedule. Do. Not. Overbook. Holiday stress often begins when we feel pulled in several directions at once. Avoid this trigger by mapping out your holiday schedule—shopping, parties, holiday shows—in an intentional and comprehensive way before the season kicks into high gear. That is, look at the month as a whole, and try avoiding a pile-on of commitments in any one week. Speaking of which...

Learn to say "no." Accept that your serenity may come at the cost of missing a few holiday dates. And if you feel the need to, try scheduling make-up dinners in January, when the calendar is often light and everyone tends to have a little bit more time. 

Reward yourself, ideally with some alone time and a hot toddy. Taking just 20 minutes a day away from the crowds (even if “the crowds” are your own family) can do wonders for your ability to manage holiday stress. Alone time gives your brain a chance to reboot, so that you’re calmer, more focused, and less likely to snap into fight-or-flight mode at the slightest provocation. 

"You will get swept away in a tsunami of demands if you don't take care of your own needs," writes Edward T. Creagan, M.D., a professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, who blogs about stress management. Schedule breaks for yourself every day, no matter how busy you feel. 

Avoid Anxiety

The term anxiety is often used interchangeably with stress, but it actually means something quite different. Where stress is a response to the moment at hand, anxiety is a feeling of worry or dread over anticipated moments or events. The holiday season—with its parties, present exchanges, and the months-long swirl of anticipation that accompany both—can be an especially fertile breeding ground for anxiety.

Here's how to keep yourself from going down a rabbit hole of dread: 

Forget perfection. Setting the bar too high at the outset is a great recipe for holiday anxiety. So, your house does not have to be spotlessly clean to entertain; your meal does not have to be made completely from scratch. You do not have to buy perfect presents for everyone. And it's okay if some family traditions slip through the cracks.

Remember the basics. It can be easy (and very tempting!) to forget about the steps you normally take to stay healthy and upbeat, like eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. But those natural elixirs are more important than ever when holiday chaos descends. A lack of sleep increases the likelihood of anxiety attacks. And exercise has been shown, time and again, to stave off both anxiety and depression. 

Mind the moment. One of the best ways to avoid worrying about an unpredictable future is to ground yourself in the here and now. Mindfulness, the practice of focusing on and appreciating the present—often through deep breathing, quick meditations, and literally stopping to smell the roses (or poinsettias, as the case may be)—is witnessing a surge of popularity. So far, scientific studies of the practice have had mixed results. But at least some evidence suggests it can work well against anxiety.  

Beat the Blues

First, let's dispel a myth: suicide rates do not spike during the holiday season. What does tick upward, though, is the rate of depression

Seasonal affective disorder—a type of depression linked to waning sunlight during the winter months—is believed to affect only a small portion of Americans, mostly those living in the north. But even people without a diagnosable condition can succumb to seasonal sadness, and it's not hard to guess why—lost loved ones remembered, difficult childhoods revisited, and more.

Remember these tips when fighting the blues:   

Let there be light. The biology of seasonal sadness is simple: Less sunlight and darker days induce the brain to produce more melatonin (a neurochemical that promotes sleep), making some people lethargic and ultimately depressed.

To counteract this process, try opening the curtains and sitting near the window more often. Or bundle up and go for a brisk walk each day when the sun is high.

If you have been diagnosed with SAD, or suspect you might suffer from the condition, talk to your doctor about light therapy. Sitting at a light box for 30 minutes or so a day has been proven as effective as antidepressants at treating SAD.

Connect. While you should certainly take some time for yourself, it's also important to have some social interaction, particularly if you're feeling down.

"We are hard-wired for face-to-face contact that includes lots of touch, eye contact, and smiles," writes Sara Konrath, P.h.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Altruism Research (iPEAR) at Indiana University. "Such interactions release a hormone called oxytocin, which helps us bond with and care for others," she notes.

So find a way to connect with other people—the holiday season is rife with opportunities to volunteer—especially if you're feeling blue. 

Stay the course. If you take medications for depression or anxiety, or if you’re seeing a therapist, and those strategies were working well before the holiday season began, don’t change them up now. Be patient if you experience a rough patch, and trust that what’s worked before will see you through again. And remember that this, too, will pass. Not even the holiday season lasts forever.