Three Tips to Reduce Holiday Stress

African American mom and two children enjoying holiday meal

What’s the best holiday present you ever received? If you’re like me, this question is difficult to answer, not because there are too many to choose from, but because you simply can’t remember.

How about the best present you ever gave? This is even more difficult. I have given countless gifts over the decades; I can’t recollect one of them. What I do remember is how much I used to stress over picking the perfect present for each person on my list.

When my daughter was little and money was tight, I would start having nightmares a month or two before Christmas. I dreamed that it was the day before Christmas, I hadn’t bought any presents…and the stores were about to close! Besides that, there was no tree, no decorations, and no food for our celebration. I would wake up from these dreams in a panic and a cold sweat.

I decided I had to take action to quell the anxiety. Here are three tips that I now use to help reduce my holiday stress.

Create Plans for Spending Time and Money

First, I had to get my mind in a more levelheaded state. I know from experience that I make impulsive decisions when anxious and can easily end up overspending as a result. To develop a cooler head, I made a commitment to keep up my exercise routine, eat healthy (with exceptions of course!), and get a good amount of sleep.

Next, I made a list of everyone I wanted to buy presents for and set the limit I was able to spend. Then, I thought about what I might like to buy for each person that was within that limit. Often, I had to edit my first list, because everything I wanted to buy equaled more than my available funds. I went back and prioritized gifts and activities until they matched up with my funds. This often meant rewriting my list several times, but I kept at it until I felt good about where I was at.  

Breathe to Calm Down

Armed with my list and a wallet full of cash (another strategy of mine was to leave my credit cards at home), I would head out to the mall. Despite all my planning, I would inevitably get an overwhelming feeling while shopping: “This is not enough” or “I must buy more.” I felt anxiety welling up inside. I wanted to run home and get my credit cards so I could buy more. I would think, “A little debt won’t be so bad.”

When I started feeling that way, I knew it was time to put Plan B into action. That’s B for breathe. Through therapy I had learned that the best way to turn from anxious to calm quickly was to breathe intentionally. I would find a somewhat quiet place in the mall, sit down, close my eyes, and practice “box-breathing.” I would inhale to the count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, then repeat four times. If that didn’t work, I knew it was time for a cooling-off period. I would leave the mall and come back another day when I felt more levelheaded.

Let Go of What’s Unimportant

When I was young, I loved Christmas for all the reasons young people do. As a teenager I started working and I loved having money to buy my parents, siblings, and friends presents. I got just as much joy from giving presents as I did from receiving them. When I had my own child, I was excited to create those same feelings and memories for her. I stressed out trying to make everything perfect — not just wonderful gifts, but meaningful traditions, new outfits, delicious food, fun family gatherings, and beautiful decorations. Though I was a single parent, I wasn’t going to let that stop me. However, my favorite time of year was becoming my most dreaded, why?

The holidays are full of expectations: traditions to uphold, decorations to complete, presents to buy and wrap, parties and events to attend, and family relationships to navigate. Some of these expectations come from society, some from our family, and others from ourselves. When I started having those nightmares, I realized that my expectations were unrealistic and didn’t reflect what I truly thought was important about the holidays. I didn’t want to let my daughter down, though, so I asked her, “What is the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” Her response? “I can’t remember.”

I asked her a follow-up question: “Then what do you like most about Christmas?” I will never forget her response. “What I love is that our house is decorated, and we light candles, and it smells really good,” she said. “I really love when our family comes over on Christmas Eve and we get dressed up, eat good food, play games, tell stories, laugh, and stay up late.” My ten-year-old cared less about presents than she did about the time with family. That’s when I realized I could let go of all the stress over presents. That one conversation with my daughter stopped those nightmares, allowed me to let go of “perfect” and focus on what was enough.

If you’re feeling stressed with holiday shopping, events and preparations, stop and talk with your loved ones. What can you let go of?

During the holidays and throughout the year, LSS Financial Counseling can work with you on other ways to control your spending, avoid unmanageable debt, and reduce financial stress. Call 888.577.2227 to set up a free, confidential appointment with one of our trusted, nonjudgmental financial counselors, or get your support online

Shannon Doyle

Author Shannon Doyle is Program Manager for Partnerships and Education with LSS Financial Counseling.