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The Science of Holiday Stress: How to Keep Calm and Carry on This Season

sok_ribbon.pngThe holidays are meant to be a time of joy and relaxation, but for many parents this time of year can feel rushed, busy, and stressful. In fact, an American Psychological Association survey found that during the holiday season, emotions of all types run high. The majority of people say they feel an increase in happiness, love, and high spirits, but almost half of adults, and especially women, say they also feel an increase in stress; lack of time, work/family balance, money, and the hype and commercialism of the holidays are the main culprits.

Stress makes it harder for us to enjoy family time, but remember that kids are also expert little stress detectors. Even if we don’t raise our voices when we’re busy and stressed, we might make less eye contact, hold tension in our shoulders, act jumpy, or need our kids to repeat themselves because we weren’t listening. Children (and even very young babies) are naturally geared to watch parents closely — that’s how they learn, and how, deep in their brains, they keep a constant monitor on whether they’re safe and cared for. Even when we don’t know we’re sending out signals of stress, our kids absorb it, and they’re less likely to feel happy and relaxed as a result.

So how can you lower stress and increase enjoyment for your family over the holidays?

A major key is to practice — intentionally practice — being in the moment and truly soaking up your environment so the holidays don’t fly by in an anxious haze of to-do’s. Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, coauthor of Calm Mama, Happy Baby, says it’s important to consciously decide to slow down periodically and look around you. “When you find yourself getting caught up in the whirlwind of running around stores or from one holiday event to the next, stop just where you are, take a breath, and take in your surroundings,” she says. “If you’re an hour away from people arriving for a holiday dinner, even if there’s still a lot to do, just allow yourself a few moments to enjoy how beautiful the house looks, the aromas of what’s cooking, the sound of your kids playing in the other room.”

The Science of Holiday Stress

The ability to be in the moment, or to be “mindful,” is thought to reduce stress and even improve health for people of all ages. For busy parents it can be really challenging, but the more we practice, the more skilled we become — like building a muscle in the brain. There are lots of techniques that work, and thankfully many guided breathing and mindfulness exercises can actually be done while you move about your day. My personal favorite is to focus on a single sense, listening to every sound, for example — from my kids laughing, to the distant hum of a plane — for five minutes at a time. I can do this anywhere. The more I do it, the more I remember those moments, and the less room in my mind for distractions.

“Happiness is a choice,” says Waldenburger. “It’s something we create moment to moment. Taking responsibility for that choice may require more effort, but it can bring a lasting sense of peace and joy.”

Most of us also have high expectations during the holidays, and precise ideas about how things need to be just so. Giving ourselves a break, letting go of all-or-nothing thinking, and setting reasonable goals will help lower stress for everyone. One friend tells me that she has sailed happily through this time of year ever since she and her husband decided they simply wouldn’t travel. Now that they have little kids, family has to come to them instead. Another friend has given in to the temptation of buying all gifts online, and she’s learned to only bite off small, manageable holiday projects, not ambitious meals and large events. “Once the kids get older, I’ll have time for a Martha Stewart Christmas,” she tells me. When you’re caught up in executing grand plans, it’s also easy to breeze by and miss important people. “So make an effort to genuinely connect with the people around you, including your kids, whenever possible,” says Waldenburger. “You’ll feel more filled up having had great conversation with a few people at a holiday gathering than having made small talk with many.”

Last year at this time, I wrote a piece about the power of traditions. Yes, traditions are incredibly important for kids, but it’s helpful to remember why they matter in the first place; for our kids, it probably has nothing to do with the details we fret over. “Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to make sure that their child and family have a positive and meaningful holiday, and unfortunately that often includes the idea that they need to get all of the things that their child wants, or to create a lot of fanfare around meals or other events,” says Waldenburger. “But even if your kids seem focused on presents, the truth is that the memories they’ll cherish when older aren’t about the things they got, but the way it felt at holiday time, and how present you were. It’s easy to forget that what kids want most of all, always, is you.”

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