Seven Ways to Diffuse Holiday Stress

December can be one of the busiest times of the year both personally and professionally. Here are some tips for staying sane.

Seven Ways to Diffuse Holiday Stress
[Photo: Paola Chaaya/Unsplash]

This may be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be the most stressful. The holidays often bring more personal and professional obligations, but that doesn’t mean your workload goes away. More than half of U.S. workers say they are happier on the job during the holidays, but 35% admit they’re more stressed this time of year, according to a new survey from staffing firm Accountemps.


The holidays are a microcosm of how stress evolves, says Stephanie Marston, coauthor of Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. “The holidays bring things into focus in an acute way,” she says. “We are trying to make the season joyful and perfect, but our work stresses may be greater than they were previously. We probably feeling like the world around us is spinning out of control, and it’s hard to not feel some sense of impending doom.”

Balancing holiday events and work obligations was ranked as the most stressful part of the holiday season, according to the Accountemps survey. Instead of feeling the frenzy, try these seven ways to cope.

1. Embrace the Season

It’s tempting to grit your teeth and bear it, but you can also use the season as a time to grow, learn, and evolve, says Marston. Instead of looking forward to getting back to normal after the holidays, consider the faster pace a new normal, taking the time to identify and reflect on your stress trigger point.

“The holidays bring more of everything, good and bad,” says Marston. “Look at it as an opportunity to do things differently, and then carry that into the New Year.”

2. Create Separation

Focusing on a long personal to-do list, such as shopping, wrapping gifts, attending parties, and hosting events during work hours can lead to anxiety and hurt productivity, says Michael Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps. Instead, set boundaries around your time.


“If you want to check off items from your personal to-do list during the workday, use your lunch break to grocery shop or run errands,” he says. “Or use vacation days to give yourself some extra time for personal errands. It’s also a good idea to take time off for yourself and recharge before the New Year.”

Before leaving work, write down your top priorities to accomplish the next day, suggests Steinitz. “Keep work and personal to-do’s separate, which will help you manage projects, improve productivity, and reduce stress during the holidays,” he says.

3. Be Vocal

Meet with your manager to discuss possible solutions to alleviate work pressure. For example, adjust deadlines, delegate assignments to others, or bring in temporary help, suggests Steinitz.

Sometimes just voicing concerns can alleviate stress, adds Marston. “Identify how you need to adjust work plans to be better aligned with your team and the world around you,” she says.

4. Maintain Realistic Expectations

During the holidays it’s easy to get caught in a tug-of-war between what we want things to be and what they are, and what we want and what we are able to do, says Marston.


“Feelings and expectations of Norman Rockwell bliss are heightened during the holidays, and stress is natural even for most balanced among us,” she says. “Get your priorities straight and have realistic expectations.”

One way to do this is to determine what can wait. “Because of year-end reviews we often spend the end of year stressing to wrap up back-burner projects, knowing full well something’s going to give,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this a high-level impact project or something that’s second tier?’ Think about putting off what you can do tomorrow. Some things can be delayed.”

5. Schedule Down Time

It sounds counterintuitive when there’s a lot on your list, but schedule time to decompress and debrief. Remind yourself by setting your phone for an alert twice a day: late morning and late afternoon.

“Small breaks throughout the day help maintain sanity,” says Marston. Take a walk, or listen to music. Telecommute one day or two. Or simply close your office door and find quiet time. Marston suggests taking a deep breath to the count of three, three times in a row, with three rounds.

“During the third round, double the length of your exhalation,” she says. “This activates the physical relax response.”


6. Express Appreciation

Gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that regulates stress, and produces a pleasure sensation, according to research published in the medical journal Cerebral Cortex.

Expressing appreciation for the little things will give you higher satisfaction with your job and coworkers, says Marston. Find ways to praise your team, say “thank you,” and be of service to others.

In addition, reframe thoughts that make you feel irritated, says Marston. “Give people the benefit of the doubt, and accept that we’re all more stressed than usual,” she says. “Instead of judging, which is so easy for us to do, focus on learning new ways to relate with them. By being more curious you’ll persist in face of setbacks.”

7. Say “No”

It can be easy to say “yes” when you want to say “no,” but during the holidays it’s more important than ever to break this habit.

“Many of us act like ‘no’ is a four letter word,” says Marston. “We say ‘yes’ because we feel guilty or concerned with what the other person will think and we don’t want to disappoint. But who do we disappoint over and over again? Ourselves.”


People who successfully reduce their stress levels say “no” all the time. “View the decision that saying ‘no’ is equally important as saying ‘yes,'” says Marston. “Saying ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’ makes us resentful. Friends and colleague will understand if you can’t participate.”

If it’s not possible to say “no,” try and remove something else from your agenda to make up for lost time. “Saying ‘no’ is the highest form of self-care and self-preservation,” says Marston. “It’s important to be protective of your time and energy, especially during the holidays.”