How to Handle Holiday Stress in 30 Minutes or Less

This time of year can increase stress and anxiety. Here’s how to alleviate those feelings and enjoy the season.

It’s a sad irony that during the time of year when many Americans pause to count their blessings and spend meaningful time with friends and family, they find themselves feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Throughout the year, 64 percent of women and 56 percent of men cite family responsibilities as a significant form of stress while 57 percent of women and 42 percent of men cite money as a major stressor, according to the American Psychological Association. These pressures ramp up during the holidays, when everything from travel plans to budgeting for gifts comes into play.

“While the holidays are often filled with joy and fun, we can easily take on too much or feel pressure to meet unrealistic expectations during them as well,” says Lauren Pendergast, RDN, CDN, NYPBeHealthy wellbeing coach. “There are many things that may cause us to feel stressed during the holiday season, and each person handles these stressors differently. Worrying about money, feeling pressure to send everyone gifts, saying ‘yes’ to every event you are invited to, traveling, and having your regular routine interrupted are just a few of the things that may cause you to feel overextended, anxious, and unhappy during the holidays.”

Pendergast says that rather than succumb to these stressors, those feeling overwhelmed should take a step back and try the following stress-reduction and relaxation strategies.

Yoga

In addition to building lean muscle and making us limber, yoga plays a part in stress reduction by reducing the body’s level of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands during the body’s fight-or-flight response.

While avid yoga practitioners may devote an hour to various stretches and poses, a simple series of yoga-inspired moves can help release muscle tension and calm the mind.

“My favorite calming yoga poses are child’s pose, seated forward bend, lotus pose — or a comfortable seated position — standing forward fold, and corpse pose,” says Pendergast. “Holding each pose for just five to 10 breaths may help relieve stress.”

Breathing

When the body is under stress, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing accelerates. Focused breathing can combat this by sending more oxygen to the brain and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a state of calmness.

The American Institute of Stress recommends a simple “Teddy bear breathing” method, which is tailored to kids but can be used by adults as well.

Start by lying on your back. Then place one hand on your chest and place a light object — such as a stuffed animal, pillow, or anything you can see while prone — on your belly button. Close your eyes and let your body become relaxed. Slowly breathe in through your nose, filling your belly with air. The object you placed on your stomach should slowly rise while your chest stays still. Then hold a full, deep breath, count to three, then slowly exhale. Repeat a handful of times, until you feel more relaxed.

If you are not able to lie down while doing this exercise, or don’t have a soft object handy, you can practice measured breathing in the car, in the check-out line, or at your desk.

Meditation

Pendergast and her colleagues use this deeper method of mindful breathing to help their clients deal with stress and anxiety. In addition to relieving stress, meditation may help lower blood pressure and irritable bowel symptoms.

But meditation also can be beneficial in a host of other situations, including short-term stress and anxiety during the holidays. Like yoga, meditation can be practiced at length or for shorter periods to get breathing back on track and quell anxiety by clearing the mind of negative thoughts.

Pendergast recommends this five- to 10-minute gratitude meditation sequence for those getting started:

1. Sit tall in a comfortable position in a chair or on the floor and allow your body to settle into this position.
2. Start by taking a few deep breaths. Inhale and feel the body inflate with air. Feel your belly and chest rise. Pause, then slowly release all the air, allowing the body to deflate.
3. Return to the natural rhythm of your breath. Continue breathing, noticing how each breath feels.
4. Begin to think of the things you appreciate most — loved ones, your home, travel experiences, or anything you have worked hard for and remain committed to.
5. Feel your heart beating. As you inhale, imagine your heart filling up with love and appreciation. Focus on your abundant love, expansiveness, and potential to grow.
6. Notice how you feel. Appreciate all that you have and all that you are. Know that you can practice gratitude at any time.
7. Start to bring your awareness back to your body and breath. Create some energy and movement in your body by wiggling your fingers and toes. When you are ready, open your eyes.

Eating Well

Who hasn’t reached for holiday cookies and candy instead of sitting down to lunch when on the go and focused on ticking off that to-do list?

The problem with this strategy is that the sugar rush ends on a crash several hours later, leaving one depleted and less able to handle stress. The same goes for coffee. Caffeine provides a short-term boost but can interfere with sleep. And high-fat, carb-heavy comfort foods like pizza or macaroni and cheese can leave one feeling lethargic.

Better bets include high-fiber, complex carbohydrate-rich foods like sweet potatoes, bean-based soups, or sautéed vegetables over brown rice. Since stress can weaken the immune system, a diet filled with antioxidant-rich produce provides the essential minerals and nutrients needed to keep energy levels consistent and sickness at bay.

“Antioxidants block cell-damaging free radicals, which are produced when the body is exposed to pollutants or breaks down food. A diet rich in antioxidants may help improve immune function,” says Pendergast. “Vitamin C, selenium, and beta carotene, in particular, are important for a healthy immune system. You can find vitamin C in foods like strawberries, oranges, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and broccoli. Selenium can be found in salmon, turkey, and tuna, and beta carotene can be found in squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and kale.”

Exercising

Staying physically fit has numerous benefits, including boosting cardiovascular and muscular health and fighting disease. But exercise can also positively affect the body by relieving stress, reducing depression, and improving cognitive function.

The good news, says Pendergast, is that there are many ways to squeeze in the American Heart Association-recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise into 30-minute increments, including:

• Take a 30-minute walk at lunchtime or plan some walking meetings.
• Do strength training with a kettlebell or hand weights while watching TV.
• Leave home with a little extra time in the morning so you can walk all or part of the way to work. For example, try getting off the subway a few stops early and walking the rest of the way.
• Do 15 minutes of jump-roping when you get up in the morning and again when you get home a night.
• Do squats at your desk for 10-minute increments three times per day.

Finally, Pendergast recommends thinking “about what, in particular, exacerbates your feelings of stress and anxiety,” she says. “Remember, it’s OK to say ‘no’ to invitations sometimes and to take some time for yourself. Taking 20 to 30 minutes out of your day to exercise, read, listen to music, or meditate can help you feel calm and allow you to refresh.”