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How to Manage Stress During the Holiday Season

As women, we tend to walk through our lives feeling chronically overwhelmed and exhausted by everything we must do, yet we're still worried we're not doing enough. Then, the holidays come around and everything on our to-do lists triples. This is also the season when we find ourselves at holiday parties and events that increase our exposure to family who may or may not respect boundaries or be triggering to us. In other words, the holiday season tends to add tough decisions and difficult conversations to plates that are already overflowing.

In this way, holidays can make it feel like the management of stress, guilt, and expectation becomes the full-time job we need to fit around our full-time jobs. In this blog, we offer therapist-approved tips on how to make this time of year easier, manage your mental health, and increase your enjoyment of this sparkly time of year.

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Why Women are Overwhelmed, Exhausted, and "Burned Out"

Have you ever heard of "human giver syndrome?" It is a concept introduced by philosopher Kate Manne's Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, which describes a class of people (the "human givers") who are expected to offer their time, attention, affection, and bodies willingly to another class of people (the "human beings"). In this view of society, human beings are encouraged to express their humanity while human givers are morally obligated to give their humanity to support the expression of human beings. Sound familiar?

The human giver syndrome is another way to describe the patriarchy, where women (the human givers) are expected and socially conditioned to give all of themselves for the benefit of others and, while doing so, be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive. If givers need anything, much less demand anything, they are looked down upon because they are challenging the social structure.

So what happens when the giver, aka women, need something? What happens when women acknowledge their own survival instincts such as internal emotions and physical health cues saying they need to pull back, care for themselves, and say no to additional responsibility? Society tells them they are selfish. So often, the need continues to go unmet and women continue to pour from empty cups until the trifecta of burnout is reached -- emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased sense of accomplishment.

Dr. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, call the human giver syndrome our "disease." The cure is multifaceted but is grounded in the proper management of stress, which this article will teach you how to do!

Why Symptoms of Burnout Increase During the Holidays

While the human giver syndrome is a year-round reality for women, its impact intensifies significantly during the holiday season. The societal expectations placed on women reach a peak as they are not only expected to maintain their usual responsibilities but also play a central role in orchestrating the holiday magic.

The pressure to create a perfect holiday experience for friends, family, and even colleagues at work holiday parties, often translates into women taking on the added responsibility of organizing festivities, adorning homes, and ensuring everyone receives meaningful gifts. This surge in expectations adds layers to stress and catapults the risk of burnout to new heights.

Some of the most predictable stressors women contend with each holiday season include:

1. Overwhelming, Endless To-Do Lists:

As the holiday season sneaks up on us, women find themselves grappling with to-do lists that seem to have a life of their own. The pressure to conjure an enchanting ambiance at home, orchestrate and attend social gatherings (and look great doing it), and discover the perfect gifts can become an avalanche of tasks that somehow multiply each time one item is crossed off the list. Balancing these added responsibilities alongside the usual ones from daily life swiftly trigger our bodies stress response day after day.

2. Gift-Giving Pressures:

While the act of gift-giving can be a pleasent activity and a genuine expression of love that generates positive emotions for both the giver and the receiver, it can transform into a stress trigger as it compounds. Women frequently find themselves shouldering the responsibility of procuring ideal presents not only for their own family, friends, and colleagues but often shoulder that task for their male partners, children, and/or bosses as well. Furthermore, as women navigate the intricacies of gift shopping, the confluence of financial strain (often caused by the gender wage gap) and time constraints add an extra layer of stress, contributing to burnout.

3. Family Dynamics and Boundaries:

Holiday reunions elevate exposure to challenging family dynamics, often characterized by conflict and boundary challenges. For those with differing personal or political views from family members or a history of generational trauma, navigating intricate family relationships and expectations becomes emotionally taxing. The obligation to wear a veneer of happiness and unity contributes to a sense of detachment—a telltale sign of burnout.

4. The Perils of Comparison and Perfectionism:

The holiday season can inadvertently breed a culture of comparison, compelling women to try and measure up to impractical benchmarks set by themselves or their friends, who always seem to be posting holiday decor on social media that somehow masters that perfect Pinterest quality aesthetic. Striving for flawlessness in holiday embellishments, culinary endeavors, and event planning may foster a diminished sense of accomplishment if expectations fall short, perpetuating feelings of shame, negative self-talk, and burnout.

Spotting Burnout Red Flags:

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Amidst the holiday whirlwind, it's crucial to pause, take a self assessment, and attune yourself to burnout's subtle cues. Watch for heightened irritability, persistent fatigue, disrupted sleep patterns, and a waning interest in once-enjoyable activities. A moderate level of stress and anxiety is healthy, especially during the holidays, because it is a busy time and it gives us the motivation to get things done. But, if the festivities leave you persistently overwhelmed and finding any joy in the season feels like an elusive, impossible task -- this is a sign that burnout has taken center stage and it may be time to reach out for support from a therapist.

How to Reduce Holiday Stress: Complete the Stress Cycle

The key to stress management is recognizing that "dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress," according to Emily and Amelia Nagoski. In other words, to effectively handle stress you need complete the stress cycle as well as address the stressor itself.

The Stress Cycle:

The stress response cycle is your body's natural response to stress and includes five parts: the external stressor, your internal appraisal, your physiological response, internalization, and coping.

It works like this . . . A stressful event occurs, like learning that you need to plan and attend your work's holiday party the same night as your child's Christmas play at school. Your brain recognizes something dangerous is happening - after all, you can't possibly be in two places at once! This type of conflict activates the amygdala (our brains fire alarm system) and signals to the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland to activate your sympathetic nervous system and suppress your parasympathetic nervous system. You're in a fight or flight response before you even consciously register the symptoms of stress - increased heart rate, upset stomach, and/or body tension along with emotional symptoms such as worry, anxiety, and dread. This state causes your immune and digestive systems shut down to prioritize other functions, making you become more susceptible to illness, made worse as the stress response is triggered over and over agin throughout the holiday season.

Once you become consciously aware that you're stressed due to the physical or emotional symptoms (internalization), the next step is to act in order to alleviate the discomfort. This final step of coping is where many people get into trouble. At this point there is a choice to engage in helpful, or maladaptive coping strategies. In our example, a maladaptive coping strategy may be to cope with the stress of needing to be in two places at once by going home and drinking heavily. A healthier, adaptive coping response may be to pause, breath, take a walk, and then go to calmly discuss the conflict with management and request help from another employee to organize the work gathering.

The difference between the maladaptive and adaptive coping strategy in this situation is that the healthier approach included a completion of the stress cycle (via breathing and walking) before addressing the external stressor.

Ways to Complete The Stress Cycle:

To effectively cope with stress, it's crucial to be mindful of both physical and emotional cues indicating stress and incorporate daily practices to complete the stress cycle. This proactive approach not only maintains a positive mindset but also equips you to handle external stressors, be they scheduling conflicts or internal pressures like as negative self talk. While you may not always be able to address the root cause immediately (or at all), engaging in stress cycle-completing activities prevents issues from compounding into more significant physical and mental health concerns. Recognizing the constraints of time, integrate these strategies into your daily routine to ensure consistent stress cycle completion, even when immediate walks or breaks may not be feasible before challenging situations:

  1. Movement: Engage in physical activities to release built-up tension. Whether it's a brisk walk, a workout, or a dance session, movement is a powerful stress-buster.

  2. Breathing: Practice mindful breathing techniques to bring a sense of calm. Deep, intentional breaths can signal to your body that it's okay to relax.

  3. Positive Social Interaction: Connect with supportive friends or family members. Share your thoughts and feelings, fostering a sense of camaraderie and understanding.

  4. Laughter: Seek moments of joy and laughter. Watch a funny movie, listen to a comedy podcast, or spend time with people who uplift your spirits.

  5. Affection: Embrace physical touch and affection. Hugs, cuddles, or even a comforting touch can release oxytocin, the "feel-good" hormone.

  6. Cry: Allow yourself to express emotions through tears. Crying can be a cathartic release, helping to process and alleviate emotional burdens.

  7. Creative Expression: Channel your emotions into creative outlets. Whether it's writing, drawing, or crafting, creative expression provides an avenue to release stress.

Final Reminders: Managing Stress During the Holiday's

Embracing the practice of completing the stress cycle on a daily basis becomes an empowering cornerstone for women seeking to navigate the challenges of the holiday season. By incorporating proactive stress management strategies into your routine, you not only prevent the accumulation of stress but also foster a resilient mindset and prevent the devastating consequences of burnout.

Remember, even when external stressors seem beyond your control, your ability to influence your stress response is a powerful tool. Prioritizing the completion of the stress cycle emerges as a vital commitment to your overall well-being, offering a pathway to not just survive but thrive during the demanding holiday season. If you find implementing these strategies challenging, consider reaching out to work with a therapist who can provide personalized guidance and support on your journey to wellness.

Her Time Therapy is an integrative group counseling practice comprised of licensed therapists in Colorado who specialize in providing convenient and empowering online therapy for women. You can feel confident working with a Her Time therapist because we are women who get it—we recognize that women like you experience a unique set of biological, environmental, economic, and social challenges that have a real impact on your mental health and are deserving of specialized support.

About the Author

Meagan Clark, MA LPC NCC BC-TMH is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Founder and Clinical Director of Her Time Therapy, LLC, a group therapy practice specializing in teletherapy for women. She received her Master of Arts degree in School and Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Adams State University and is a Board Certified Telemental Health Provider and Nationally Certified Counselor. As a women's therapist, Meagan specializes in working with female-identifying teens and adults who suffer from trauma, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and grief. She is also a Certified Holistic Cancer coach and specializes in supporting cancer patients and caregivers. Meagan believes strongly in the empowering nature of integrative and feminist therapy to give women the knowledge and tools they need to navigate gender-based oppression, increase resiliency, and empower themselves to create a life they love.

*Disclaimer: This blog does not provide medical advice and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed health provider before undertaking a new treatment or health care regimen.

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