Author:Dr. Melanie Badali, R.Psych.
Despite the smiling faces you see across your social media feeds, if you look around in the real world, you may notice that not everyone is feeling merry and jolly this time of year.
In a survey on holiday stress, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that people are more likely to report their stress level increases rather than decreases during the holidays.
Stress is a common experience that can arise when demands are placed on us. For many people, demands increase leading to the holiday season. For example, while most people enjoy giving and spending time with loved ones, not everyone has enough time or money to do everything they want, or that others ask of them.
Actual demands do not need to increase for people to feel stress. The mere thought or perception that we are not doing “enough” can trigger our stress response. The stress scale tips when perceived demands outweigh our perceived resources.
Don’t put stress on the naughty list
No need to put stress on the naughty list – it’s not all bad. The human stress response can be useful in some situations – it can give us a boost of energy and mental alertness that can help us compete in an athletic event, or it can help us deal with a challenging situation. But when we experience too much stress, for a long period of time, or when we can’t recover from stress, it can cause problems.
When our stress systems get overworked, we are at an increased risk for various health problems. That’s not so nice. It’s not healthy to avoid all stressful situations or feelings, but it is healthy to be aware of your stress levels and manage stress accordingly.
Clues that it’s time to “up” your stress management game
Around this time of year, it is common to experience stress. But how can you tell whether you are experiencing a normal, healthy amount of stress, or your stress system is working too hard? Here are some clues that indicate it’s time to “up” your stress management game:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling tired, down, irritable, anxious, or overwhelmed often
- Difficulty concentrating and paying attention
- Muscle tension – especially in the back and shoulders
When you notice your stress levels rising, take stock of your demands and resources. Deal with any demands you can. If you encounter problems that are difficult, try using problem-solving strategies. The website stressstrategies.ca has some great tools including a problem-solving approach to manage stress. The website guides you through 5 steps:
- Choose stressor
- Choose action strategies
- Learn about your action strategies
- Define your action plan
- Review your action plan
Anxiety Canada.com also has some great information on problem-solving, including a 7-step strategy for solving daily life problems, you can read more here: https://anxietycanada.com/adults/how-solve-daily-life-problems
Problem-solving is key to managing stress, but sometimes we may have problems that take longer to solve or seem unsolvable. So what are some things that you can do to manage stress this season?
I like to use the acronym W.I.N.T.E.R. to remember the following:
W – WRITE
Writing in a thought diary is a useful tool for many people. Check out Anxiety Canada for tips on using thought diaries: https://anxietycanada.com/parents/moms-to-be/thinking-flexibly/your-anxiety-fingerprint/your-thought-diary.
I – INVEST
Invest in yourself. It may be the season of giving, but this should also apply to yourself. Practice self-care during the holiday season. Eating well, getting enough sleep, continuing to exercise and making time for you – these are some ways that you can invest in yourself.
When you feel stressed out, take a break and do something that gets your mind off stress. This gives your stress response system a chance to rest. When we get busy, we may feel that we don’t have “time” for a break, and when we do take a break, we’ll notice that we don’t feel refreshed and recharged after. This is because your mind is on everything that you have to do. Make sure that when you take a break – you take a break! Taking a break does not mean avoiding or procrastinating for long periods. Take a short break and then get back to what needs to be done. Setting a time period (and even using a timer) for a break can help you be more productive and feel more energized. Anxiety Canada has tips on self-care: https://anxietycanada.com/parents/new-moms/taking-care/importance-self-care.
N – NO
Learn to say no. Saying no (even when you want to help and it’s a good cause) doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a place on the nice list. Managing demands includes figuring out how much you can handle and learning how to sayno to new demands when you are at or nearing capacity. Saying no to a demand now can free up your time to add a resource that can help you feel more balanced. It’s easier to take on more if you become bored than it is to take stuff off your plate when you feel overwhelmed.Struggle with saying no? Anxiety Canada has some tips here: https://anxietycanada.com/self-help/effective-communication-improving-your-social-skills.
T – THINK REALISTICALLY
Realistic thinking means looking at all aspects of a situation (the positive, the negative, and the neutral) before drawing a conclusion. Look at yourself, others, the world and the future in a balanced and fair way is not always easy. This time of year is full of opportunities to drop the ball instead of deck the hall. It’s easy to let the hype of having to “do it all” tip the stress scales so perceived demands outweigh perceived resources. Learning realistic thinking skills can help you manage your stress and negative emotions. Anxiety Canada has resources about how to do develop your healthy thinking skills https://anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/RealisticThinking.pdf
E – EXERCISE
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health. It can help improve your physiological response to stress, decrease overall stress levels, and recover a sense of well-being. If you live in Canada, winter tends to be the hardest time of the year to get outside in the fresh air and get moving. In Vancouver when it is dark and rainy before and after work most days, it can be hard to exercise. Ask a friend to be an exercise buddy, go for a walk at lunch, or dance around to your favourite tunes. Any exercise is better than no exercise. For more info about stress and exercise check out https://anxietycanada.com/parents/new-moms/taking-care/exercise and https://www.stressstrategies.ca/a-stress-friendly-lifestyle.
R – RELAX
During a season when many people respond “busy” to the question “How are you?” – it may seem like there is no room for relaxation. Relaxation and mindfulness practices do not need to take up a lot of time, cost nothing, and can be done almost anywhere. You can see benefits with as little as 15 minutes of daily practice. Slow, deep breathing lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, as well as helps you to feel calmer and more focussed.Try Anxiety Canada’s Chill Out tools on our Mindshift App and relaxation strategies on our website https://anxietycanada.com/parenting/how-do-progressive-muscle-relaxation.
The tips above are backed by scientific research. Unfortunately, this does not mean every tip will work wonders for every person. There is no “cure” for stress. We wouldn’t want there to be one (remember – it’s not on the naughty list). If we needed to fight, freeze, or run away from something dangerous, we would want our stress response to kick in fast and furious. Since we can’t live without stress, we have to learn to live with it. I recommend building a stress management repertoire or coping toolbox. Try different strategies and see what combination works best for you this winter and through the year.
For more information, visit the following links below:
- Anxiety Canada – anxietycanada.com
- Psychology Foundation of Canada, Stress Strategies – https://www.stressstrategies.ca/coping-with-stress
- Mayo Clinic, Stress Management – https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544?pg=2
- Stress and Anxiety Quiz – https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/stress_and_anxiety