It's billed as the season of joy and laughter, but for many people, the stretch from November 1 to January 1 is anything but. One found that more than eight out of 10 Americans actually expect to be stressed during the holidays. But it doesn't have to be this way. A little foresight and advance planning can return the season to what it was meant to be: joyous. "It's good for people to be aware that the holiday season can be stressful," says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in State College, Pennsylvania. Here are missteps to avoid this holiday season.
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You set sky-high expectations
We all want our holidays to look like a Norman Rockwell painting, with the turkey basted to golden brown, the kids acting like perfect angels, and an exquisitely decorated and perfectly symmetrical tree glittering in the background. The truth is, having idealized visions can set you up for disappointment.
Holiday stress solution: Drop some of those expectations and stay in the moment, advises Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a health psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "If our mind wanders, we're less happy than if our mind is in the moment," she says. When you catch yourself stressing out over small details, take a break to do a few soothing yoga poses or —this brings us back to the present and can reduce stress.
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You rigidly stick to traditions
Trying to replicate the rose-tinted memories of childhood holidays is just another form of angst-provoking perfectionism. "People often feel that they need to have some traditional style as they did when they were growing up, but times do change," says Rodino. "There really isn't any rule about following tradition."
Holiday stress solution: Breaking rules to create new traditions can be part of the holiday fun. And if laughter can be part of the mix, all the better—laughing reduces stress hormones.
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You don't stick to (or even set) a budget
An American Psychological Association survey found that almost two-thirds of Americans rank money as the number-one holiday stressor. That stress can stretch into the New Year as you struggle to pay off credit card purchases.
Holiday stress solution: "Set a budget and don't go above it," advises New York psychologist Carol Goldberg, PhD. A holiday-specific budget might include amounts for new clothes, entertaining, and gifts. (And feel free to spend under your self-imposed limit.)
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You try to buy everything on Santa's list
When your kids hand you wish lists that are a mile long, you may feel financially inadequate when you realize you can't afford to buy them everything they've asked for, says Carl Greiner, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. That's not the kind of holiday spirit you want.
Holiday stress solution: Have an honest talk with children, especially older children, about any financial constraints or what one gift they would like most, advises Greiner.
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You agonize over gift-giving
Hand in hand with money stress is the drive to deliver the perfect gift.
Holiday stress solution: You probably have some friends or family members who would happily agree ahead of time not to exchange gifts at all. You could also split up the gift-giving duties with a Secret-Santa-type raffle, suggests Rodino. If it's the money that's worrying you, try giving the gift of time or something homemade. "The gifts that are most appreciated are those that match a person's interests and not how much you spend on it," says Goldberg.
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You eat foods that make you feel bad
It isn't necessarily holiday weight gain that will stress you out (though that won't help). Certain foods just make you feel worse overall, says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. High-sugar foods have been linked to depression and other mental-health woes.
Holiday stress solution: Forgo the decorated cookies and eggnog in favor of foods these 10 foods that fight holiday stress. And remember, bad food choices aren't limited to desserts. Candied yams, sausage stuffing, and dark-meat turkey with gravy won't do your mood or your waistline any good.
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You think added stress will cancel out added calories
Chronic stress (think holiday shopping) combined with a diet high in fats and sugar may lead to a stomach looking very much like a bowl full of jelly. Extra fat around the middle has been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and other ailments. Stress can also increase hormones that slow metabolism, making extra pounds harder to shed, says Wesley Delbridge, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and adjunct faculty at Arizona State University.
Holiday stress solution: Cut back on stress by cutting back on shopping, parties, and travel. Cut calories by avoiding buffets or at least return trips to the buffet, says Greiner. Delbridge recommends eating a small, healthy meal at home before hitting the social scene. And remember that side dishes around the holidays are seldom harmless.
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You drink more coffee than usual
People drink more caffeine during the holidays thanks to a combination of cold weather (coffee warms you up), recovering from extra late nights out, and needing to muster more energy for Macy's, says Delbridge. Though coffee has many health benefits, overdoing it on caffeine only fuels anxiety, sleeplessness, and lack of concentration.
Holiday Stress Solution: "Best to try to have 16 ounces or less of coffee per day and solely reap the benefits of coffee's antioxidants, which may help reduce the risk of certain diseases and ultimately be beneficial to overall health, without the added stress," says Gans. Remember that dark chocolate and hot cocoa also contain caffeine.
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You say yes to every single party
Every year, it seems like everybody has a party during the holiday season—your office, your parents, your neighbor down the street. Feeling obligated to attend all of them when you're already juggling your family, job, and errands—oh, and your own holiday planning—would be enough to send your stress level skyrocketing.
Holiday stress solution: Just turn down invitations to parties you really don't feel like attending, and ask for a rain check. "You're communicating that this is important to you but your schedule doesn't allow it," says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
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You let family drama get the best of you
For some folks, family explosions are more the rule than the exception—why else would Home for the Holidays be such an enduring box-office hit? But a tension-filled home will only exacerbate any stress you're already feeling.
Holiday stress solution: You can't control how your relatives behave, but there are things you can do to minimize the odds of open conflict. One of them is to put away slights from years ago, even if they still sting. And be sensitive to another person's hot buttons. If you have a cousin who is unhappy with her work situation, for instance, then best not to bring up that year-end bonus that just padded your paycheck, advises Goldberg. And learn from past experiences so you don't invite new slights. If Uncle Albert is usually drunk and belligerent by 10 pm, make sure you're long gone by then.
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You don't limit your booze
Drinking alcohol may make you the life of the party you didn't want to go to, but it comes at a cost. Alcohol can interfere with sleep and leave you dehydrated and hung over the next day. It can also make you impulsive and loose-lipped and contribute to the types of conflict you so diligently set out to avoid.
Holiday stress solution: Rather than going straight for the bubbly, start the evening with some sparkling water. "It'll likely keep you from overdoing alcoholic drinks later," says Delbridge. Tip back no more than one drink per hour and alternate alcohol with non-alcoholic drinks throughout the night.
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You book travel at the last minute
If it's already November and you haven't even started looking up flights for Thanksgiving, well, you're too late to get ahead for this year. In the future, it's best to start searching for flights two months or more before you leave.
Holiday stress solution: Set a calendar alert on your phone right now for late August of next year that says "book holiday travel." Another way to avoid the travel crunch: "Fly on Thanksgiving morning when it's not crowded and instead of having Thanksgiving at 3 or 4 like most people have it, eat at 7 or 8," suggests Goldberg.
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You don't spend any time outside
Lack of sunlight is thought to be linked to a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a chronic dip in mood that hits up to 20% of people as days grow shorter. SAD may also bring on feelings of anxiety.
Holiday stress solution: Getting outside (yes, even when it's cold out) for at least a few minutes every day may help relieve your seasonal stress. It makes sense: both depression and anxiety have been linked to a lack of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to happiness. Sunlight may boost serotonin levels.
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You put your workout routine on the backburner
When the stress of shopping, cooking, work, and too many parties begins piling up, exercise is often the first thing to get pushed aside to make more time for everything else. But study after study has proven that exercise fights stress, so why would you give up your workout routine just as the holiday stress gets going?
Holiday stress solution: You schedule doctor's appointments, haircuts, and lunch dates—why not exercise? Experts say if you also add exercise to your to-do calendar, then you'll be more likely to make it happen. If all else fails, try these easy ways to sneak in exercise.
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You stay up too late
Too many late-night parties can mean not enough sleep. This has been linked with everything from accidents to heart disease, diabetes and, yes, increased stress. In fact, stress and sleep deprivation may fuel each other in a vicious cycle leaving you exhausted by the time the New Year rolls around.
Holiday stress solution: Make sleep a priority and aim for 7 to 8 hours a night. If holiday stress leaves you wired every night, try these yoga poses—they're designed to help you sail off into dreamland.
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You don't allow yourself to feel sad or angry
The pressure to be cheerful at this time of year can be relentless and, frankly, unhealthy. Studies suggest that bottled-up emotions may increase aggressive behavior and even bring on an earlier death.
Holiday stress solution: Writing about intense emotions can lead to better physical and psychological health. If you find you're not in the holiday spirit, take a pen to paper for 20 minutes and find yourself back in gear. Topics as simple as what you're worrying about at the moment or something you've been avoiding have been shown to improve health.
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You try not to think of the loved ones you've lost
The holidays can be a painful reminder of loved ones who've passed on, especially when it's the first holiday season you have to endure without them. While it may be tempting to push those memories away, not grieving properly can result in "complicated grief," a condition not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder.
Holiday stress solution: Turn the holidays into an opportunity to honor a loved one's memory. "That allows people to cognitively approach it not from a state of loss but a state of respect and honor," says Rego. Write a letter to the person, create a memory shrine or just propose a toast.
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You try to do it all yourself
If your holiday pattern is to plan, shop, cook, and serve all the meals by yourself on place mats you made yourself in between rush-hour shopping trips, you may be headed for disaster. Flying solo on holiday tasks will burn you out before the actual holiday occurs and deprive you of one of the best buffers against stress: social support.
Holiday stress solution: "People actually enjoy giving to us and offering their help," says Mirgain, so take them up on it! "Social support is one of the most protective factors against stress and depression." Allowing others to help actually fosters the sense of community, which for many is the whole reason to celebrate in the first place.
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You set unrealistic New Year's resolutions
Vowing to lose 20 pounds in the new year? Good for you—but you probably won't lose all that weight in a month, and maybe not even a few months. Unrealistic goals set you up for failure, which is why 30% of all New Year's resolutions are abandoned before the end of January. They also tee up stress that's sure to last far beyond the holidays.
Holiday stress solution: Before deciding on your resolution—whether it's weight loss, saving money, or something else—psychologist Ronald Nathan, PhD suggests asking yourself some questions: Can you imagine doing this the rest of your life? Is the goal something you can get excited about? Is the goal specific? If yes, then write down your resolution and be sure to break it into small steps so you can measure your progress.
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You lose sight of the big picture
The 12 Days of Christmas can quickly turn into 12 Days of Hyperventilation if all you do is check things off lists and rush to events that feel like obligations. "Getting through" the holidays with your head in the sand and sweating the small stuff means you'll never get to relish the joy of the season which is, after all, what it's all about.
Holiday stress solution: "The holidays are often perfectly imperfect," says Mirgain. Accept that and move on. Start ahead of time deciding what are the one or two things that you want out of this time then organize events around your core values. "If we can drop out of the expectations and land in the moment, it's often the small things that are the most memorable," Mirgain says.