Even in “regular times” — remember those? — the holiday season could be stressful. Long to-do lists, high expectations, pressing end-of-year deadlines, family drama and financial strain all love to show up in December.

Now, in our second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress is dialed up. Sure, it’s great that vaccines have made it much safer to meet with loved ones than it was last year. But there are also new hurdles: Is everyone on the same page with COVID-19 safety measures? How can we get together and still protect the vulnerable? Will our packages show up, given the shipping delays the pandemic has caused?

It’s normal to feel stress around the holidays or any other time when our day-to-day schedules are upended, says UNC Health clinical psychologist Crystal Schiller.

“Although stress is normal, it doesn’t have to be miserable,” she says. “What you do in the face of stress impacts how you feel, how much you’ll be able to enjoy the holidays and how long it will take you to recover afterward.”

Try these seven simple steps to help you through the holidays:

1. Breathe

When you breathe deeply, you combat your body’s stress response, lower your blood pressure and heart rate and boost your immune system. So when your in-laws, parents, children, siblings or spouse are pushing your buttons this holiday season, try taking some deep breaths before you respond.

2. Exercise

Exercise reduces stress. That’s partly because physical activity bumps up our production of endorphins, body chemicals that help us feel happier and more content. Find an activity that you enjoy that doesn’t feel like a chore. For example, you could walk for 15 minutes around the neighborhood to look at your neighbors’ decorations or dance to holiday music with your kids.

3. Eat mindfully

It’s easy to make impulsive food choices during the holidays, when junk food is plentiful and stress levels are high. Preventing stress eating begins with being a mindful eater. Focus on what you’re eating, how it tastes and when you feel full. At holiday parties, notice all of the options before you prepare your plate: Those peppermint cupcakes look good, but you might see another dessert that looks even better. And don’t beat yourself up if you eat more than you wanted to; focus on next steps that can help your body feel better, whether it’s drinking a glass of water or doing some light stretches.

4. Sleep

Yes, you have a lot to do. But instead of skimping on sleep, consider it one of your most important tasks. Poor sleep impairs your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to colds and other infections. It can also affect your overall health and mood, causing you to feel anxious, grumpy or depressed. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

5. Laugh

Laughter has been shown to reduce stress, increase blood flow, improve immune response and help with relaxation and sleep. When you feel your stress building, put on a funny movie or call a friend who always makes you chuckle. You might not feel like doing it, but you’ll be happy that you did.

6. Do something nice for you

During the holidays, you’re busy trying to make everyone else’s day, baking your children’s favorite cookies, choosing a gift for their teachers and making sure your in-laws are comfortable in your guest room. First, try to give yourself permission to not do everything and to be imperfect. Cross off tasks that aren’t essential or delegate them to your spouse. Second, don’t forget to do nice things for yourself, too. You don’t have to spend money — though you can! Think soaking in a quiet bath with a book, taking a walk by yourself or buying yourself that present you really want. Anything that brings you a little pleasure alleviates stress.

7. Focus on connection

Many holiday traditions involve getting together with the people we care about the most. Rather than focusing on how it should go or whether you oversalted the gravy, focus your attention on the quality of your connection with others; this will help the holidays feel more joyful. Slowing down to play games with the kids, making an extra phone call to grandma or taking a walk with a friend can go a long way to help you feel less stressed and make the holiday special for everyone.

Crystal Schiller, PhD, is an assistant professor and co-director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at UNC School of Medicine.

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