Five Guidelines for Defusing Stress this Holiday Season

Thanksgiving marks the unofficial beginning of the unofficial “holiday season.” The term means different things to different people, evoking different emotions for each of us. Joyful remembrance mixed with sorrow or grief for those no longer with us. Excitement laced with uncertainty. Anxiety around family gatherings. Indifference. 

And above all the chaos of the coming season, like a damp blanket of fog threatening to rain on your parade (or family gathering), hangs Covid. Vaccinated or not? Boosted? Tested negative in the past 72 hours? Masking? Distancing? Gathering around the table with several of your closest relatives? Entering the holidays with record numbers of cases in Vermont and ICUs near capacity adds a layer of stress onto what for many is an already stressful season. 

Then, there’s winter. In Vermont. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits about half of us here in the northern climes. The change of seasons plus holidays plus Covid ratchets it all up a notch.

How is one to cope with all of this?

Surviving and Thriving

There’s no quick-and-dirty formula for surviving the holidays. But there are some tried-and-true strategies that might help you cope with the added anxiety of Covid during the season of good tidings and cheer. 

For starters, have some compassion. Start with yourself. We’ve never done this before. We’ll need to face things we haven’t faced before. We’re going to make mistakes. We need to keep our cool, keep our jobs, hold our families together, and support our communities. We need to not only survive but thrive. And to be there for others who count on us. All of us are counting on each other. 

Also, stop thinking about self-care as something for brides-to-be on a spa day. Start thinking about it as essential to surviving and thriving. Stop thinking of it as a luxury or something you don’t have time for. Start thinking of it as something you can do right here, right now, even if it’s just a 10-second pause to tune into the present moment.

Other gems for surviving the season were part of a recent livestream Q&A from UVM Medical Center, “How to Overcome Holiday Overwhelm.” Aron Steward, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, and Jeremiah Eckhaus, M.D. a holistic-minded family medicine physician at Central Vermont Medical Center, led the discussion.

What Does Your Stress Look Like?

“We have to keep our frontal lobes and cognition fully intact,” Steward told participants. “Our brains were built to deal with challenges that lasted a short time; it’s not prepared for this longitudinal stress.” When stress is chronic or repeated, it can change the brain circuits that enable the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain, to control more primitive reflexes, such as those triggered by fear. Over time, this can lead to anxiety, depression, and a kind of short-fused jumpiness termed hypervigilance.

“Hypervigilance is a big word for being ready for anything,” said Steward. It’s characterized by increased sensitivity to the fight or flight stress response, and remaining in crisis mode longer. “Sometimes it makes us hyper-focused on what could happen rather than what is happening.”

Steward encouraged people to know the signs and symptoms of stress (see below), which show up in different ways in different people. “Sometimes if these are not noticed and validated, they get bigger,” she said. 

Physical symptoms of stress:

  • Aches and pains
  • Tight chest
  • Hard time catching deep breaths
  • Tingling
  • Temperature fluctuations
  • Digestive problems

Mental signs of stress:

  • Rapid mood changes
  • Preoccupation
  • Perseveration
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Sadness, anger, or worry
  • Difficulty relaxing or calming

Find Your Coping Strategy for Stress

Steward and Eckhaus both encouraged participants to explore different coping strategies and find what works for you. “What are the things that help you when you’re really frustrated?” said Eckhaus. “Take an inventory, and find what works in those times.” Call upon these strategies when you most need them.

“It’s good to have a recipe of choices, different bits and pieces to try on,” Steward reiterated. “Then you can individualize a personal plan, which may change over time. You practice them when you’re calm-ish so you’re able to pull them out of your back pocket when you really need them.” 

Five Guidelines for Defusing Stress

They outlined five core guidelines to getting a handle on overwhelm this holiday season.

Be Mindful. Mindfulness simply means paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. It can be for 15 seconds or for an hour. Start small. Make it accessible. Use it throughout the day.

“Mindfulness practice treats the mind like a new puppy that’s just learning to walk on a leash, gently bringing it back each time it gets distracted.”

~ Jeremiah Eckhaus, M.D. Family practitioner

Practice Gratitude. Spending time each day in gratitude is good for our brains, Steward said. “Gratitude shifts your thinking from what is missing to what is present.”

Set Boundaries. Conserve your energy every day to reduce your risk for fatigue. Say no by default, then opt in if you can. Check in with yourself routinely to gauge capacity. Let go of the fear of being “unliked.” Also, remember that gathering with others is always subject to our personal comfort levels; if we want to skip out this year, that’s okay.

Healthy Relationships. The “number one most important thing,” Steward said, is to have self-compassion. Only then can we be fully available to others, to have compassion for others. 

Use Humor (when appropriate). Sometimes, humor is an appropriate and welcome stress diffuser. Other times it can fall flat. Timing is everything. (Eckhaus told some bad “Dad jokes” to demonstrate.)

Learn More and Find Resources

Watch the Livestream Q&A, “How to Overcome Holiday Overwhelm,” with Aron Steward, Ph.D., and Jeremiah Eckhaus, M.D.

Join our new Holidays Support Group, a facilitated discussion to share, support and learn from your peers about how to manage stress and anxiety during this time. Every Monday at 4 p.m. ET.

Find Self-Care Tips and Resources at COVIDSupportVT.org.

Get the basics on stress – what causes it, what it looks like, and what to do about it. 

Download our Daily Stress Management Plan and print it out at home as a guide to staying on track with your self-care and wellness.

Join one of our daily workshops and support groups on a range of self-care and wellness topics. All are offered virtually (Zoom link provided upon registration) and are free and open to all. Find them here. 

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Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (option #2) or 866-652-4636 (option #2) for free, confidential, one-on-one counseling. Our Support Counselors are available Monday – Friday. 

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org. Follow COVID Support VT on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And to stay up-to-date, sign up for our newsletter and blog.

Learn about upcoming Wellness Workshops from COVID Support VT, and Town Halls we’re hosting in partnership with community organizations.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources & downloadable materials in 10 languages common to Vermont’s New American immigrant and refugee communities. 

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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