When "Ho Ho Ho!" Is More Like "No No NO!"

For many people, “Happy Holidays” are anything but. Heightened expectations and the Hallmark version of what the holidays are supposed to look like opens the flood gates of stress hormones that turn the scent of gingerbread into the stench of dread.

The tidings of the season often result in unrealistic hopes that everything will be perfect and everyone will be happy. The notion of sitting around a fire with family, unwrapping gifts before feasting at a linen draped table inspired by Martha Stewart’s Home for the Holidays special doesn’t reflect the reality of the family conflicts, financial difficulties, and travel headaches that are just the tip of the stress iceberg. Rising cortisol levels combined with the force of emotional contagion can make even the Griswolds’ holiday look charming in comparison.  


Research surveys routinely show that more than HALF of Americans experience overwhelming  stress and increased feelings of depression during the holidays – meaning that for most of us all of that holiday cheer ranks right up there with a getting a root canal or filing for divorce.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), more than half of all women (51%) and men (43%) in the United States experience enough stress to chemically change the brain and potentially result in physical side-effects.

With all the holiday hullabaloo, making time for self-care often falls to the bottom of a very long to-do list. The good news is that there are some easy ways to shift your neurochemistry and counter the joy-sucking cortisol stream with the “happiness trifecta” of  dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.


Six simple ways to keep the holidays from hijacking your sanity. 

Prioritize Yourself – Remember that self-care is not selfish. Think of it as putting the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can be more present for those around you.

Practice Gratitude – Studies show that the intentional practice of gratitude can lower your stress hormones by 25%. When you start to feel your stress level rising, look for something – anything – to be grateful for in that moment. If you want an extra boost, reach out and tell someone why you appreciate that person. Expressing appreciation for others has a bigger impact on you than them.

Give Back – Helping others and expecting nothing in return creates a powerful pathway to happiness.  Altruistic behaviors release dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Interestingly, small repeated boosts of the happy cocktail will produce the most benefit, so look for little ways to help others and do so frequently.

Make Meaningful Small Talk – Avoid stock phrases like “have a nice day” or “happy holidays” when engaging with others. Try out, “Thank you for being the best part of my day so far!” on the deli worker at the grocery store or tell the postal clerk “I hope people are nice to you today.” This small gesture costs nothing and will be a pleasant surprise.  Flash a smile as an extra bonus and you’ll both get a dose of happy chemicals.

Make Connections – Humans are wired to connect, but we tend to withdraw and isolate ourselves when we need to feel a sense of belonging the most. Social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression, especially during the holidays.  If family dynamics are part of your holiday stress, find others with whom you can connect, feel accepted and loved.

Breathe – Deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises stimulate the vagus nerve and engages the parasympathetic nervous system Learn more about the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve in this video

As you navigate the crowds and the traffic and the endless obligations, remember that everyone you meet may be silently fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Finally, let me leave you with an important reminder: “simple” does not always mean easy.  For many people, the enjoying the holidays and employing these five “simple” strategies are anything but easy. As you navigate the crowds and the traffic and the endless obligations, remember that everyone you meet may be fighting a silent battle you know nothing about.  

Some may be gathering around the table for the first time without a loved one. Others may be fighting custody schedules wondering how to make the magic of Christmas happen for their children the day after Christmas because the ex gets them on Christmas. Some will not worry about gifts or a tree because there is no room to put them in the car they call “home.” And, others will sequester themselves so as not to disclose just how sad and alone they actually feel.

If you notice someone who seems sad, acknowledge that person.  Reach out and let him or her know that you care. Sometimes, a kind word or a simple expression of recognition can be  incredibly meaningful. The smallest gesture can make a world of difference to someone who feels alone. If you're feeling depressed, give yourself permission to feel exactly how you feel, and remember that you are not alone.  And, if you find all of it just too much to handle, let someone in to help you. 

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, there are resources available to provide free and confidential support. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or Teen Line at 1-800-TLC-TEEN or SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

Please share this post to anyone you know who may be struggling with the holidays this year. 

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