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Sweatpants & Sanity | How I Conquer the Side Effects of Holiday Stress

By Jennifer Landis

I have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. The wonderful thing is that they’re jam-packed with parties, family, friends, shopping, baking, presents and music. The horrible thing is that they’re jam-packed with parties, family, friends, shopping, baking, presents and music.

There’s too much to do and too many people to do it with. Stress city. It started when I was a kid. My parents had split up, so sometimes my younger brother and I spent Christmas day with my dad. There’d be a ridiculous number of presents under the tree—not that I complained—lots of cookies and every Christmas movie and TV special ever made. Kid paradise.

Then we’d go back to my mom and stepfather for a more conservative and traditional Christmas. We’d sit around the tree and take turns opening presents. Like I wanted to watch my brother get yet another 500-piece Lego set that was supposed to work on his “problem-solving abilities.” We all knew who the real problem was around that circle (and my mom isn’t married to him anymore).

When I got married, my husband and I created our own Christmas tradition, which was great—pajamas, books and hot cocoa. So relaxing. Then our daughter came along. Not that she isn’t great. The problem is she’s too terrific.

Everyone wants to see her on Christmas day. Since she graced the world with her presence, we’ve spent Christmas day shuttling back and forth between families. At each house, she’d be presented with massive amounts of gifts. Already over-stimulated, she’d get frustrated with the wrapping paper but refuse our help (“Me do it!”) Then she’d start to cry. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a toddler wailing and clawing at packages.

Christmas was out of control. Right after Halloween, I started stressing out. My easy-breezy nature became anxious and insecure. Or short-tempered and bitter, depending on who you asked.

I worried constantly. Was this the right present for so-and-so? Which was the best sugar cookie recipe? Were we teaching my daughter consumerism and greed rather than peace and goodwill? Why doesn’t the Grinch wear pants? Every aspect of the holiday was under scrutiny.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Sure.

After a colossal meltdown while my daughter and I were struggling to make a gingerbread house, I’d had it. I wanted to make a beautiful, gossamer sugar testament to the holidays, while she wanted to finger paint with frosting and eat gumdrops. Truth be told, the tantrum included both of us. I realized the truth. Though I tried to do everything and be everywhere at Christmas, it’s impossible.

Enough.

I took back Christmas. I put the emphasis on the three of us. We don’t ignore our extended families, but they don’t see us on December 25. It’s the holiday “season,” remember? We visit everyone for a little while over the course of a few weeks. No breakdowns. No over-excitement. No tears. And my daughter is calmer, too.

I can’t say that everyone is completely on board with the new program. There are complaints, recriminations, threats, sighs and guilt trips. But we stand firm. As my daughter gets older, we’ll make some changes. Until then, I’ve learned to reduce the stress holidays seem to bring right along with snowflakes and eggnog. Here’s my how-to guide for diminishing December dread.

It’s a vicious circle. Stress makes it hard to fall asleep—I was even grinding my teeth due to stress, which led to toothaches the next day. Then, being sleep-deprived stressed me out even further.

Most adults just don’t get enough sleep. We feel dopey, prickly and impatient. Ah, to be like my daughter, conked out, with a blankie clutched in one hand and a well-chewed plush puppy in the other. I have a sleep routine, but it doesn’t include stuffed animals. I try to:

  • Maintain the same sleep schedule every day.
  • Get away from screens and listen to quiet music just before I turn in.
  • Keep my bedroom cool and my pillow firm.
  • Never, ever nap. Some days it’s really tempting when my daughter goes down, but I know I’ll regret it that night.

Trust me—I know it’s easy to get busy and skip exercise during the holidays. But that’s exactly the time I need it most. And bonus! Regular exercise also helps regulate sleep.

Just about any kind of exercise helps with stress. I vary my routine to keep from getting bored and to meet my personal needs. After a phone call with my mother, a kick boxing class really hits the spot. “No” —  thwack  — “I don’t want” —  thud — “my daughter” — smack — “to have a tablet” — thump — “at three years old!” Boom.

Frosted cookies, yule log cake, mulled wine, gingerbread, candy canes, hot buttered rum, turkey and stuffing — I love holiday foods. Honestly, I’ll even eat fruitcake. Just not all the time. It’s about balance. Some foods actually help your body handle stress by affecting brain chemicals and hormones. Unfortunately, pecan pie doesn’t make the list of stress-fighting foods such as:

  • Complex carbs like whole grain breads, pastas and cereals
  • Oranges
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon
  • Black tea, without tons of sugar
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Avocado — hello, guacamole!
  • Warm milk at bedtime — a dash of vanilla makes it more than palatable

I swear my extended family has never heard the “b” word: budget. The amount they spend on Christmas is crazy, and we’re expected to follow suit. Big problem? None of us has the money to go all out, so it always goes on credit cards. Then January comes, bringing bills and stress.

Never again. We use a holiday budget and don’t spend more than we can afford. Sometimes that means we don’t spend a lot, but we’re adding to savings, working toward goals and reducing debt. All good things that lower stress levels. So much better than another ugly tie.

The holidays won’t ever be perfect. I can’t please everyone. But I can have some quiet amid the storm, with giggles and hugs instead of frowns and sobs.

Jennifer Landis is a wife, mama, writer and healthy living blogger. She drinks tea in excess, has a collection of peanut butter, and is a super nerd at heart. Find more from Jennifer on her blog, Mindfulness Mama, or follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis

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