Breathing, and Other Painfully Obvious Methods to Manage Holiday Stress

It seems clear that the main reason the holidays are so stressful is the nearly unavoidable pressure to HAVE A UNIFORMLY PLEASANT AND MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE.
Publish date:
December 22, 2014
holidays, stress, cats, anxiety, crafting, breathing, hand sanitizer

My husband and I alternate holiday years between his family and mine, as is only fair. Our families are pretty different, so I get a bit of holiday whiplash from year to year. My family likes to go out a lot; his family is more inclined to hang in each others’ houses and visit.

Also, my immediate family is down to three people. Three. My dad, my mom, and my stepdad.

My husband, on the other hand, has a nuclear family that includes siblings, as well as an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty, many of whom have their own kids as well. It’s a lot of people, and even as a child, my holidays were low-headcount affairs; it wasn’t until my late teens that I stopped having separate holidays with each parent, and started having one still-small holiday dinner party which both parents attended.

Even as I’ve spent many holidays in my husband’s very different family atmosphere, I still find myself a little overwhelmed by all the people. Occasionally, during holiday events with my wonderful and numerous in-laws, I have caught myself in reflective surfaces, staring into the middle distance with an apparent look of anguish on my face. It always startles me and I immediately worry that someone else has noticed. I am not anguished! Just overwhelmed. It is the very definition of "It's not you, it's me."

For all the seeming hipness factor that introversion has collected of late -- and I swear, I have read no less than a dozen “Something Something Holidays Introvert Blah” listicles in the past couple weeks -- it’s still kind of a pain in the ass. My personal obstacles are comprised of a mental salad of mild social anxiety plus being emotionally exhausted by large groups AND not being accustomed to spending consecutive hours with huge family units in the first place. If I had more experience with the latter, the former issues would probably not be the stumbling blocks they often are.

(Truth be told, I am also usually distracted by the fact that I miss my own family terribly, but don't tell them that, it'll go to their heads.)

My preferred means of dealing is to find a quiet place to escape for a bit. It’s a tricky thing, because often people don’t understand why I would rather take one hour of a multi-hour holiday gathering to sit on a porch alone, in 17 degrees, watching it snow, instead of hanging out indoors with lots and lots of other people. They may take it personally, or assume I must be unhappy. I’m not. I’m just recharging. It’s like an intermission between acts. My brain is stretching its legs, using the restroom and maybe drinking two or three gin and tonics in rapid succession. I’ll come back in when the lights flicker, and I’ll enjoy the rest of the show.

Unfortunately, not all holiday stress comes in the form of an abundance of loving family who want to hang out with you a lot, because while even the most devoted families have their stressors, this is still probably the best kind of “problem” to have. There are as many sources of holiday anxiety as there are people, and lots of times, this stress finds you in a place where you can’t just walk away from it. So I’ve collected a few other methods of dealing that work for me, and I hope, might help some of you.

Borrow Other People’s Pets

First question: Does the house you’re in have a cat? Locate the cat. Commune with the cat. The cat may not want to hang out with you. Depending on the cat in question, it may be even more unnerved by the sudden mass of people in its space than you are. It’s OK. Take it as a challenge. Negotiate a deal with the cat. You are gonna make that cat your friend. Or, at least, you are gonna make that cat glumly tolerate the shit out of you. Everyone may think you’re unusually cat-crazy but they probably won’t realize you’re secretly avoiding human contact for a short while.

There is science behind this: interacting with animals can reduce anxiety and help with depression. Even airports are doing it. I flew back to Boston from Fort Lauderdale this weekend, and given the proximity to Christmas, it was an even more stressful experience than usual -- and I’m a nervous flier to start with. By the time I got through security and to the gate, I found that all the seats in the gate waiting area were taken (all the seats in ALL the gate waiting areas were, in fact, because Fort Lauderdale is weirdly seating-avoidant). I was not in the best of moods.

But then I saw a happy dog, and for me, just seeing a happy dog calms me right down. At first I thought she was someone’s guide dog, but then I noticed the vest she was wearing specifically said, “Please pet me.” Turns out she is an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix named Kelley, and she is an AmbassaDog, one of a squadron of therapy dogs at Fort Lauderdale International Airport whose task is simply to stroll around the concourses with her owner and be petted by anxious travelers. And people of all ages were literally flocking to pet her. As many as 27 airports nationwide have started therapy dog programs in which licensed therapy dogs and their owners bring the happy-dog joy to people who need it, which seems wise given the way air travel is becoming ever more stress-inducing, if the growing numbers of rerouted planes for misbehaving passengers are any indication.

Point being, if there’s an animal nearby, exploit it. Squeeze it for every drop of nourishing anxiety relief.

Use Gallons of Hand Sanitizer

The holidays always convert me from mild germophobe to complete hypochondriac, partly because I am being exposed to scores of children, which is out of the ordinary for my life, and however cute and precocious and funny and adorable and affectionate they may be, none of it erases the fact that underneath it all they are tiny filthy disease factories. And I don’t want to speak for everyone here, but few things stress me out more during the busy holiday season than the prospect of getting sick.

See also: airplanes. Fun fact: airplanes only need to be given a thorough cleaning once every 30 days or every 100 hours of flying time. Tray tables and seat belts are apparently covered in human excrement, as are those bins you use to keep your coat and shoes off the ostensibly-even-dirtier conveyor belt going through security.

I am not yet at the level where I’m dousing everything in sight with Clorox; I have yet to even start carrying a travel pack of disinfecting wipes around (although I have seriously considered it, and only resist because I don’t want to be That Person wiping down an armrest while fellow passengers stack up behind me waiting to board). Instead, whether in the air with strangers or on the ground with extended family, I compulsively slather my hands in Purell every ten minutes or so and I feel calmer.

Do Something With Your Really Clean Hands

I’ve developed a habit of taking a crochet project anywhere that I expect to be anxious or stressed out. Sure, I look like an obsessive grandma clutching my yarn at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but I started doing this because it actually works for me -- crocheting has a contemplative quality to it that refocuses me away from whatever nonsense I’m stressing about, and puts my attention squarely on the project I’m holding.

Surprisingly, there is not a whole lot of specific research into the stress-reducing effects of crafting, although there is a case to be made for it having similar effects to meditation:

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described this phenomenon as flow: a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the secret to happiness -- a statement he supports with decades of research. [...]

Our nervous system is only capable of processing a certain amount of information at a time, he explains. That's why you can't listen and understand two people who are talking to you at once. So when someone starts creating, his existence outside that activity becomes "temporarily suspended."

"He doesn't have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can't feel if he's hungry or tired. His body disappears."

I find that yarnwork is fairly portable if you carry a good-sized bag with you, and cross stitch even more so, but if you want something truly pocket-sized, consider shuttle tatting. As a bonus, my experience is that crocheting, knitting, or any other needlework is a fairly socially acceptable activity when in large family gatherings -- at least more than losing yourself in staring down at your phone and ignoring everyone around you, even though the mental effect is basically the same.

Put Air In Your Lungs

I know. It’s automatic. It’s involuntary. But it may also be the single best weapon in your anti-stress war, and you have it with you always, everywhere you go. It’s your freaking lungs and your ability to put air inside them.

Yoga people and frequent meditators already know about the importance of keeping aware of the breath, and breathing exercises are popular with practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine. But there may be actual science to it as well, as some research suggests breathing exercises can help improve chronic respiratory disease, high blood pressure, and heart failure:

Esther Sternberg is a physician, author of several books on stress and healing, and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. She says rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It's part of the "fight or flight" response — the part activated by stress. In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction — the one that calms us down.

"The relaxation response is controlled by another set of nerves — the main nerve being the Vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That's the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake," says Sternberg. "When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake."

How to breathe to make this happen? For the chronically stressed, it can be a surprising challenge. While there are lots of more complicated rhythmic exercises, simple deep abdominal breathing can chill you out in a pinch. This is as simple as taking six to ten deep breaths per minute for five to ten minutes, making sure you are engaging your diaphragm with each inhalation. Putting a hand on your belly to gauge movement there can help guide your muscle awareness, as your belly should inflate with abdominal breathing, instead of your chest.

If you’re still unsure of whether you’re doing it right -- and don’t feel bad if so -- there are, of course, apps for that. Specifically there are apps (both on iOS and Android) to help you pace your breaths for maximum effect. Personally, in times of dramatic stress I like to use a heart rate monitor app set to continuous mode as a basic biofeedback tool; I breathe deeply and watch my heart rate come down in response.

Letting Go

Several years ago, one of our cats became gravely ill just before Christmas. Being this was a year in which my husband’s family was expecting us, I sent him off to his parents’ house on his own, volunteering to stay home alone and administer the three-times-daily medication our sick kitty required.

It was a very difficult idea, this being left by myself with an ailing cat for the one holiday that I had never spent apart from family in my entire life, but it didn’t seem fair to ask my husband to stay home and disappoint his folks. The day he left, I wandered around the house, morose and self-pitying, until that evening when it began to snow. I looked out the windows and I looked at my cat and I couldn't figure out why I was so depressed.

As noted above, I often find myself trying to escape the holiday family fun times as much as I participate in them. Why did I feel such loss at having the option taken away from me, even by my own choice? Apparently just recognizing how irrational I was being was enough to break the spell, and I had a perfectly lovely and solitary holiday after that.

It seems clear that the main reason the holidays are so stressful is the nearly unavoidable pressure to HAVE A UNIFORMLY PLEASANT AND MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE. We are inundated with impossibly high cultural and social expectations, and while this may only be a middling annoyance to those of us with mostly enjoyable family holidays, it can be devastating to people with no hope of an idyllic outcome. But I think we’d all benefit from a little more letting go. I’ve yet to meet anyone in my life who didn’t have some kind of holiday baggage, even if that baggage is a compulsive need to pointedly assert that everything is perfect and no baggage exists.

Can we not hold onto the holidays so tightly and just relax? How do you chill out in the midst of pressure?