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Mental Health

Is Stress Stealing Your Christmas Spirit? Doctors Have 4 Tips for Getting It Back

Usher in more hope and peace with this expert advice.

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After a year fraught with everything from financial challenges to hectic schedules to missing loved ones, the magic of the holidays can feel elusive. “I should be happier,” you think to yourself. “What’s wrong with me?” The short answer: nothing. This season is filled with such high expectations — especially for women — it’s easy to believe that we’re failing or letting others down if we’re anything less than blissful. But such thinking triggers even more stress and guilt that blocks out joy.

This time of year, when everything seems to be about others’ happiness, it’s important to remind yourself that your needs are just as important as anyone else’s, and your feelings are valid, encourages Megan Logan, LCSW, author of Be Kind to Yourself. “The key is to stop trying to put on a ‘happy face’ or suppressing what you’re actually struggling with, and instead, name your emotions — like disappointment, loneliness, or grief. This lessens the power of those negative feelings, allowing your heart to open to true hope and cheer.”

Read on for easy ways to show yourself the same kindness you so readily show others, so you can easily outsmart a few of the most common holiday joy-sappers — and embrace the bliss, serenity, and miracles of the season.

1. Stress about money? Focus on values.

From buying enough food to feed your large extended family to finding the perfect gifts for everyone on your list, you’re anxious about affording it all. “Financial stress cuts across all backgrounds at the holidays,” says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, author of The Financial Anxiety Solution. “It’s easy to falsely equate how much we spend with how much we love someone.”

Rather than focus on money, pinpoint the feeling you want to create. “Picture the sensations you want to experience, from coziness to laughter,” says Bryan-Podvin. This visualization helps you shift into values-based thinking. “If hospitality is a core value, you might pick up disposable slippers for guests at the dollar store.” When our money aligns with our principles, holiday overspending is curbed almost effortlessly. Also smart: Do a “loving self-audit,” she urges. “You may say, ‘Yes, I spent a lot on X, but I learned Y from it.’ I’m a baker, and I learned that gifting neighbors sourdough was more meaningful than spending.” It is possible to be generous and boost your bottom line.

2. Overwhelmed by obligations? Set limits.

During this busy season, you’re exhausted from your unrelenting schedule. “When you feel stress, take a realistic look at your emotional and physical capacity,” says Lysa TerKeurst, author of Good Boundaries and Goodbyes.“Then allow yourself to set boundaries.”

Creating limits comes down to one word: and. Before a potentially tense family gathering, for instance, you might tell relatives: “I’m so excited you’re coming, and I’ve recognized something about myself…” says TerKeurst. Maybe you realized talking politics will be a source of stress and might be off-limits. The use of the word “and” makes your request inclusive. In fact, boundaries have three keys: access, responsibility, and consequences, she says, explaining that you and those who have emotional access to you owe it to each other to take responsibility for healthy limits. Clarify your parameters and what the consequences will be if they’re not met. “You can say what you mean, without saying it mean.”

3. Reeling from a loss? Feel all emotions.

It’s been years since your mother passed away, but every holiday, you feel a wave of sadness as if it were yesterday. “Whether you’ve experienced a loss recently or years ago, the holidays bring back that grief,” says psychotherapist Nancy Colier. “The truth is that this is a season of longing.”

Instead of denying difficult emotions, show yourself compassion. “When we open ourselves up to it, grief is allowed to come and go like the rain, in its own time,” says Colier. Whether you keep a chair empty at the holiday table or light candles in a loved one’s memory, tenderhearted rituals help you honor your losses, gradually opening the way to joy. Indeed, if you begin to feel happiness alongside grief, there’s no reason to feel guilt or shame over that. “We sometimes hold tightly to our grief because we’re afraid that when it leaves, it’s as though our loved one no longer matters,” says Colier. “But grief changes us forever and the people we’ve lost will be with us forever. Let yourself feel sadness and joy, because the holidays are a time to honor all our emotions.”

4. Feeling insecure? Savor your strengths.

As you prepare to host family you haven’t seen in ages, you can’t help but feel self-conscious about those few extra pounds you’ve put on. “The holidays are a very anxiety-provoking time when it comes to our appearance,” says Judith Matz, coauthor of The Body Positivity Card Deck. “If our body has changed, we often fear we’ll be judged.”

Remind yourself that your worth isn’t tied to your appearance. “Ask yourself what you notice about others — it’s likely their sense of humor or their smile, not their weight or wrinkles,” she says. “Now turn that perspective on yourself by noting your qualities.” And if someone is critical, Matz advises saying, “I know a lot of people focus on appearance, but there are so many more interesting things to talk about,” and pivot to the show you’re bingeing or the novel you’re reading. Also helpful: Acknowledge how your body serves you, from your arms that give hugs to your legs that let you take long walks. Opening to gratitude shifts your thinking from self-criticism to self-love during the holidays and beyond.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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