RIT Psychologist Offers Tips to Ease Holiday Stress

Professor says understanding cause of holiday stressors is key to managing them

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Roger Harnish

It’s the holiday season—presents to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, crowds to fight—and not nearly enough hours in the day to get it all done by Dec. 25. It’s enough to drive anyone batty, but according to one psychology professor, the key to handling stress is to acknowledge its many causes.

Roger Harnish, a psychology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, has a handle on some things that make the holidays more of a burden than a blessing.

Change of routine. Too much change, even positive change, produces stress. Even though the human body is built to adapt to change, too many changes create imbalances in the body that produce stress. Think of all the changes around the holidays. We shop more (and for different things than usual). We travel more. We tend to eat differently. We tend to stay up later to get everything done. Every change in our routine can stress us.

Crowding. Crowding is a known stressor. With everyone out and about during the holidays, we are exposed to more people and therefore more stress.

Delays. We build up expectations as to how long tasks normally take. During the holidays, we often can’t perform our normal tasks in the same amount of time and this can frustrate us and stress us. Because more people are out doing things at the holidays, there is more traffic and longer lines. For winter holidays, in many parts of the country it is colder and inclement weather can making everything slower.

More stimulation. Stores want us to buy their products, and during the holidays, they are competing with crowds and other stores for our attention. So, things get louder and brighter (holiday decorations, music, bell-ringing Santas, etc.) All of this stimulation has a negative impact on our nervous system, and that creates stress.

More decisions. Research shows that if people have to make more than five decisions in a short amount of time, it is stressful. Think about all the extra decisions we make at the holidays: What to buy, when to get together, whom to invite, whom to send cards to and how to get everything done.

So, can holiday stress be lessened, or at least, can its impact on us be lessened?

“Believe it or not, some people are immune to stress,” says Harnish. “These people have a quality called hardiness. Psychologists have studied these hardy people and based upon what we have learned, we can offer advice on what non-hardy people can do to be hardier and more stress-free.”

Acceptance. This means giving up on the need to control the holidays. Understand that the holidays will change your routine, be more crowded, cause more delays, be too stimulating and require a lot more decision-making. These are the facts. Rather than trying to change these things, or trying to make them go away, recognize that they are part of what holidays are.

Flexibility. Humans have a great capacity to be flexible. However, when we are stressed, or fearful or negative, we lose a lot of that flexibility. To reduce your stress, stay in touch with the parts of yourself that are creative and know how to improvise. When you feel that you are being confined or having your actions dictated, that is a warning that you need to switch your focus to the part of you that is flexible.

Optimism. Most human beings are more optimistic than not. Stress can eliminate this optimism. As was pointed out, holidays can frustrate our normal expectations of how long it takes to get things done. Learn to keep your optimism. Tell yourself that things will work out. Tell yourself that even if things don’t work out, it is not the end of the world. It is the holiday season and people are more forgiving.

Meaning. Why are you celebrating the holidays? What do they mean to you? Stress can take away the positive meaning of the holidays and make everything seem negative. If you can focus on why you are grateful for the holidays, you will reduce your stress. Several times a day, remind yourself why you are grateful.

Broad perspective. Stress causes people to narrow their focus and see the details as more important than the overall situation. If you keep your focus on the big picture—such as the joy that the holidays can bring—you will reduce your stress.