10 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress—for Good!

How to prep for the holidays while minimizing stress so you can enjoy the real reason for the season.

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Ah, the holidays. They bring with them your aunt’s amazing sweet potato pie and Peanuts nostalgia. Unfortunately, they also usher in jaw-dropping credit card debt, extra pounds and epic-level arguments. Unfair? Absolutely. Inevitable? No way. We talked to experts in mental health, finance, nutrition and more to create a life-changing holiday pre-habilitation plan for avoiding the pitfalls of the most wonderful time of the year. Follow these tips and you won’t have to worry about tightening your belt, slimming down or making amends come January 1st .

Create a To-Don’t List
Yes, you read that right. But first you’ll need to make a to-do list. “Once you write something down, you can avoid the stress of ruminating,” says Holly Phillips, MD, an internist and author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough. Then review each item, asking yourself: “Can I delegate this?” (maybe your spouse can buy prepared side dishes instead of you cooking all night) and “Can it wait until January?” (say, that basement clean-out you’ve been meaning to tackle). If the answer is yes to either, move it to your to-don’t list. You’ll feel lighter and better able to take on what’s truly important.

Save Hundreds of Dollars

1. Get real about your budget. “One of the top holiday spending mistakes people make is underestimating the total cost,” says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, author of Zero Debt. “Set a realistic budget now that accounts for not only gifts but also travel, home furnishings, decorations, food and other extras.” And write it down: Mental estimates won’t hold you accountable.

2. Skip the gifts. “Some years I’ve given my children a choice: We can go on a trip together or stay home and get presents,” says Khalfani-Cox. “They’ve immediately said, ‘Let’s go!’ because they’ve learned that the experience of having their parents unplugged and with them somewhere new—even just for a day outing—is much more meaningful and memorable for them.” It’s also potentially cheaper for you.

3. Beg, borrow and deal. Why spend money on a new centerpiece when your bestie won’t be using hers the night of your party? Or purchase a reindeer outfit for your son’s school play when your neighbor’s kid played the part last year and has the costume? Look for resources around you—and return the favor when the time comes.

Go Shabby Chic

Make a rustic table cover or runner out of butcher paper, suggests David Stark, event designer and author of The Art of the Party. “The kids can work on this in advance, doodling festive pictures, or you can write guests’ names on the paper instead of place cards,” he explains. “Each guest can receive a marker next to her spoon so she can write the things she’s thankful for.”

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Forget Being Flawless

“Don’t aim for a perfect holiday—aim for a unique one,” says Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much. “You won’t feel pressure to compare your holiday with others’ and you’ll focus on enjoying the ride.”

Squeeze in You Time

We promise: It’s not impossible and it’s actually essential. “These months are so hard because people haven’t nurtured themselves, yet they’re running around on empty and are expected to take care of others,” says Panache Desai, author of Discovering Your Soul Signature. “Before the year-end festivities, it’s more important than ever to do things that build up your strength and self-confidence.”

In 1 minute... Take a few deep breaths, focusing your attention on each inhale and exhale.In 2 minutes... Read a short, inspiring piece of literature like a poem, motivational book or religious passage.In 3 minutes... Schedule future time to unwind. Consider booking an appointment to get your hair or nails done before an upcoming party.In 5 minutes... Meditate. Spending time witnessing stray thoughts will not only calm you but keep you focused.In 10 minutes... Call a friend who lifts you up or take the scenic route home.

Choose to Not Choose

Lightsaber or Millennium Falcon toy? Shiny or plain wrapping paper? Burnt sienna or brick-red lipstick? “A big thing that gets people overwhelmed during the holidays is having to make a million micro-decisions,” says Melissa Cohen, LCSW, psychotherapist and creator of the Relationship Roadmap, an online couples coaching program. Experts call it “decision fatigue.” Reduce the strain on your brain by eliminating all nonessential choices.

1. Automate as much as you can. Serve the same breakfast all week. Wear dresses instead of spending time coordinating tops and bottoms. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel every day.

2. Ignore your apps. You don’t have to know who just added a holiday song to Spotify or think about whether you need to comment on your friend’s Facebook photo. Allow yourself the break.

3. Don’t second-guess yourself. “I don’t care if you could have gotten a prettier housewarming gift or should’ve served the chicken—once the decision is off the list, it’s off,” insists Cohen. So say buh-bye to energy-sapping self-doubt.

Slow the Heck Down

“When you’re in a rush, you miss the chance to enjoy special moments,” says Tony Crabbe. Next time your spouse spontaneously asks for a hug or your child wants you to watch her dance, seize the opportunity. You may think you don’t have time to spare, but the richness of this time of year comes from those micro-moments.

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Relax with Your Senses

LISTEN... to a song that makes you smile. Or even belt it out yourself for an emotional boost. “This stops your fight-or-flight response and releases feel-good chemicals,” explains Ruth Curran, author of Being Brain Healthy.

SMELL... a calming scent. If your grandma’s cinnamon buns always made you happy, open a jar of cinnamon and let the aroma usher in memories. It can make any unpleasant activity more tolerable.

LOOK... for a distraction. Anxious while setting the table? Home in on any object in the room (say, your curtains) and think about how many other types of window accents there are (blinds, valances, shutters), says Curran. That simple, distracting brain exercise can diffuse anxiety.

FEEL... how tense you are and make an effort to relax. For example, are your shoulders up by your ears? Have you been clenching your jaw? Take a 15-second inventory of your tense muscles, relax them and even give yourself a little neck massage.

TASTE... a little dark chocolate. Research shows the bittersweet treat can reduce stress while also dampening your body’s production of cortisol (which ups your appetite) and epinephrine (which increases your pulse and blood pressure).

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before EatingQ. Is this really worth the calories? “Avoid mindless eating by focusing on what is and isn’t deserving of being indulged in,” advises Molly Morgan, RD, author of The Skinny Rules.Q. Am I tired? Choose foods that are high in magnesium, iron and omega-3s, such as nuts, leafy greens, salmon, tuna and beef. “If you’re running low on those nutrients, your energy can take a hit,” says Phillips. And fatigue will have you reaching for low-nutrient junk food faster than you can say “Pumpkin spice latte, extra whip.”Q. Did I detect a hint of nutmeg? “Remember to bring mindfulness to your food and you’ll find you are more satisfied with less,” says Jean Kristeller, PhD, author of The Joy of Half a Cookie. Chew slowly and let your mouth fully appreciate the flavors and textures of each bite.Q. Am I in a bad mood? When you’re feeling upset, put in the extra effort to eat healthfully. Even moderate stress may impair self-control and cause people to make poor food choices, according to a small study published in the journal Neuron.Q. Could I just be thirsty? “As the weather gets colder, it’s easy to forget to drink fluids, but staying hydrated can help keep hunger in check,” says Morgan. Have beverages like seltzer or unsweetened tea at the ready so you remember to drink up.

Stress Less Over Presents

1. Stock up on hostess gifts. “Buy a case of your favorite wine or a few boxes of chocolates so you always have a gift ready to go,” says Cohen.

2. Shop online. “Put items in your online cart or on your wish list, and leave them there for a day or two,” says Emilie Goldman, CFP, founder of Tamarind Financial Planning, in San Mateo, CA. This gives you time to compare prices, check your budget and search for coupon codes. You’ll also avoid impulse buys, aching feet and (if you start now) rush shipping fees.

3. Manage expectations. Ask your children to write down what they’d like to receive this year and promise they will get one or two items from the list. Knowing they’re guaranteed a coveted present—as opposed to a bunch of random stuff—can help them savor what they receive.

4. Make a family pact. For extended family, suggest a spending cap on gifts (say, no purchases over $20) or agree to make something for each other. It will give people a chance to get creative—and have fun—without going broke.