Mental Health Matters: Dealing with stress during the holidays

For most, the end-of-year holiday season bring with it good food, celebrations, family gatherings and joy. For others, the season can also bring conflict as siblings, in-laws, parents, cousins, and other extended family come together with love and diverse opinions.

Even the expectation of conflict can cause stress and ruin what could be a special time with loved ones. Stress produces cortisol, a hormone made by adrenal glands that acts as a warning system for your body but that can also have serious effects in your body, such as:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Pain
  • Irritability
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Stomach upsets


By taking proactive steps you can help alleviate stress and make the holidays a special time for all.

Listen to your body—When you start to feel those stress feelings and noticing physical effects, focus on where you experience symptoms in your body and try to reframe the physical sensations by identifying what made you start feeling that way. Talking about physical reactions can sometimes be easier than talking about emotions.

Adjust your expectations— Throughout the holidays, and always, be gentle with yourself. Holidays bring heightened expectations—everything should be perfect, meaningful, and beautiful. But remember that it’s a season of gratitude. Think about what you’re grateful for and put it in writing. Focusing on the good can help you relax and cope with the not-so-good.

Strategize—It’s helpful if everyone in the household, especially partners and spouses, are on the same page about how to deal with in-laws and extended family. Discuss exactly how much time you wish to spend with family members and what conversations might be off-limits. Stay attuned to each other’s signals: a hand gesture, a wink, or even a touch on the shoulder will work.

Press pause on some conversations—Family members and friends come chock full of opinions, many of which you or others might not share. Differing political or religious views, for example, have impacted or even ended family relationships. When tensions run deep, some people feel a sense of loss after realizing they no longer recognize or relate to certain family members.

If you find yourself in the middle of a difficult conversation about education, careers, parenting, politics, or any number of subjects, try saying: “I love you/respect you. Can we put this conversation on pause for now and talk about something else?” Just knowing you have a pause button could relieve some of your stress.

Protect yourself—You know what your triggers are, and so does your family. The anticipation of conflict is sometimes the worst part. Practice how you will handle stressful conversations or behave toward particular individuals. And try not to push your family members’ buttons, either.

While stress is a normal emotion that helps you navigate difficult situations, it can also have negative effects. This holiday season, focus on being proactive, setting boundaries, and reducing your stress. Your body will thank you. And in the process, you might experience the best holiday you have ever had.

If you need additional support, take advantage of Dallas ISD’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by LifeWorks, which is free for employees, 100 percent confidential, and available to all employees and their dependents. 

Sessions through the EAP are available by phone, virtual, and in person. Employees can also find tips, articles, self-assessments, and topical features focusing on specific EAP resources available through the EAP smart App.

To start on your wellness journey please visit or reach out to the EAP by calling 972-925-4000 and selecting option 3 for EAP. 

Source: Sarah Woods, Ph.D., director Behavioral Health, Family and Community Medicine at UT Southwestern



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