Gathering around a cozy fire, drinking a warm cup of cocoa, listening to your favorite carols…Special moments like these make you smile, but unfortunately, bliss isn’t the only emotion you’re feeling this time of year. As the big day approaches, you find yourself worrying that you won’t find the right gift for your mother-in-law, worrying that your co-workers will notice you’ve gained weight when they see you at the company holiday party, worrying that everything won’t be perfect on Christmas morning…just worrying.
“The holidays can stir up a lot of anxiety, sadness, and fear for women, especially after a stressful year,” says psychotherapist Kara Hoppe, LMFT. And when people-pleasing and other seasonal pressures — like grappling with family tensions or having to appear jolly even if your heart is hurting — are in full gear, we spend 50 percent of our time caught in anxious thoughts about the past, what the future will bring or what others think.
Fortunately, Hoppe says there is a simple way to break free from this exhausting cycle of seasonal stress: self-care. “Tending to your needs only takes a moment and doesn’t shortchange or disappoint anyone,” promises Hoppe. “Plus, flexing your self-care muscles empowers you and helps refocus your energy on what matters most: time with loved ones.”
Read on for simple ways to dodge the most common holiday “happy sappers” so you can feel more peace, relaxation, and joy this season.
The Pressure: ‘I Have to Make Everyone Happy’
Your aunt and sister are micromanaging your holiday menu, and you’d like to tell them both to back off. But as the family peacemaker, you don’t want to upset either of them. Taking on this role is often a survival strategy picked up in childhood, says psychotherapist Daniela Tempesta. “But if we say ‘yes’ to others, we often end up saying ‘no’ to ourselves.”
Joy Booster: Take a P.A.U.S.E. for serenity. If speaking up causes anxiety, just repeat: “Postpone Action Until Serenity Emerges (P.A.U.S.E.),” urges Tempesta. “Then breathe in for four counts, hold for four and exhale for four.” Pairing calming words with belly breathing lowers stress, giving you the confidence to set limits, such as, “Thank you, but dinner is planned; I’ll let you know if I need help.” In the end, boundaries can give you peace.
The Pressure: ‘It All Has to Be Perfect’
You and your family are stringing lights, but when you plug them in, a fuse blows, throwing your light show into darkness. The little ones were eager for this moment, and you’re worried you let them down. “Instead of beating yourself up, remember that perfectionism is a farce,” says Tempesta. “It’s a charade trapping us in an endless cycle of self-criticism.”
Joy Booster: Bring to mind memorable mishaps. When you feel pressure to be perfect, think of a time when your holiday veered off-course. Maybe it’s the year you forgot to add sugar to your cookies and your family made s’mores instead. “Most likely, everyone chuckled and worked together to come up with plan B,” says Tempesta. Recalling missteps reminds us that meaningful moments can be found in laughing at ourselves — and with each other.
The Pressure: ‘I Look Worse This Year’
You’re trying on your favorite party dress for the first time in two years, and it’s a bit…snug. Everyone is going to notice I’ve gained weight, you think, as your heart sinks. I don’t really have anything else to wear. While you know everyone will probably say you look great, it’s still firing up serious levels of anxiety and insecurity, souring your mood.
Joy Booster: Banish insecurity with gratitude. The desire to look our best is often stronger over the holidays, confirms Hoppe. “But when insecurity rears its head, focus on gratitude,” she urges. “On a sticky note, write three ways your body amazes you.” Perhaps your legs allow you to take the hikes you love, and your arms let you hug your grandkids. Each day, read that note. “This reminds us that how we feel in our bodies is what truly matters.”
The Pressure: ‘I Should be Happier’
It’s supposed to be the most “wonderful time of the year,” but many of us are grappling with deep loss, grief and past trauma. This kind of hurt feels more urgent and powerful during the holidays, but when our moods aren’t all sugar cookies and candy canes, we also start to feel a layer of guilt on top of the heightened pain, says Tempesta. This often causes negative thoughts like I’ll always feel sad this time of year or There’s something wrong with me; why can’t I just be happy? And when we pretend to be upbeat for others, it makes it even worse.
Joy Booster: Redefine your family traditions. Instead of forcing joy, give yourself permission to feel everything that’s in your heart and do something that dials down your stress levels, suggests Tempesta. One way may be to rethink your traditions. For instance, if cooking stirs up too much sadness for those who can’t be at your table, host a potluck instead. Or forgo cooking altogether and give everyone (including yourself) a break and make reservations for holiday brunch. Says Tempesta, “After a stressful year, taking care of you is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.”
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.