Apparently, it's a female problem. A survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of women experience a major jump in stress levels during the holidays, compared with 33 percent of men. In fact, 41 percent of guys said they view the season as the perfect time to relax.
"Women who manage most of the responsibilities associated with the holidays really feel the crunch," says Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
"As a result, many miss out on the joy of the season and even experience a downturn in well-being." Studies show that stress lowers nimmunity and increases the risk of depression.
The good news is that it's possible to score some calm—no chef, personal shopper, or holiday miracles required. Consider it your gift to you.
Researchers have long known that altruism—such as volunteering at a hospital—raises levels of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical that shields the body from stress hormones.
What's interesting is that no selfless act is too small, says clinical therapist Serena Wadhwa, Psy.D., director of the TriQual Living Center in Chicago. To sustain a helper's high, aim to perform a simple act of kindness every day. Easy examples include bringing the mail to an elderly neighbor, surprising a coworker with a cup of coffee, or slowing your car on a busy street to let another driver turn.
Optional: Singing "Joy to the World" as you do it.
A to-do list organizes tasks so nothing falls through the cracks, but it can leave you feeling overwhelmed because it reminds you of everything you haven't completed.
Balance things by starting a "did it" list that itemizes your daily accomplishments, Wadhwa suggests. For example, maybe you didn't clean the guest room for an upcoming family visit, but you did make transportation arrangements for your relatives. "Noting what you've done can turn feelings of anxiety into feelings of accomplishment," Wadhwa says. What's more, a did-it list reflects how much you can realistically tackle in a given day, so you can adjust your expectations.
On social networking sites, users often highlight their triumphs and downplay their disappointments, Rego says.
This reinforces the human tendency to overestimate others' happiness—and can leave you with the impression that you're the only one who hasn't managed to find the perfect gift for her sister or lock down fabulous plans for New Year's Eve.
If you can't give yourself a break from social media, keep your pals' victory posts in perspective. "Odds are, your friends are experiencing many of the same challenges you are," Rego says.
By raising body temperature—a sensation associated with comfort—almost any warm beverage can relax you. But new research suggests that hot cocoa is especially calming.
This winter favorite contains a plant compound called epicatechin, which helps keep blood pressure steady when stress mounts. One note: Milk lowers the body's absorption of epicatechin, so don't make your cup too creamy.
Stir a spoonful of dark cocoa powder into hot water, add just a splash of milk, and sweeten to taste.
To get through the task of writing holiday cards, many of us dash out one-size-fits-all messages such as "Best wishes for a joyful season."
That gets the job done quickly, but it's also a missed opportunity, Rego says. His advice: Choose a handful of loved ones and take an extra minute to pen a personal note—say, about a shared memory from the past year. "Communicating a warm and heartfelt sentiment can reduce stress by reinforcing your connections to your social circle," Rego says.
How's that for a special delivery?
Break out the cookie cutters: A batch of homemade gingerbread men can sweeten your state of mind long before you take that first nibble.
Much of the credit goes to the careful prep work baking requires. "Measuring and mixing ingredients in a series of steps can induce a state of flow—complete immersion and energized focus," Wadhwa says. "Your thoughts become centered on the task at hand, helping shift stress to the back burner."
In addition, research shows that the scent of baking spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon can bring on a merry mood.
A long line at the mall or supermarket can set your nerves on edge in seconds. Resist the temptation to complain angrily—venting in a negative way will only shorten your fuse, Rego says.
Instead, try turning to a fellow shopper and making a humorous remark to lighten the mood. ("Goodness, we've been in line so long I think my nephew outgrew this sweater I was planning to buy!") This acknowledges your agitation without allowing it to get the better of you.
An hour or so before bedtime, turn off the TV, computer, and any unnecessary lighting, Wadhwa says. This in itself can promote relaxation and prime the body for restful slumber.
While you're at it, set aside late evening chores and spend a few minutes gazing at a flickering holiday candle or Christmas tree lights. Wadhwa says a nighttime "nothing break" allows you to clear your head and prepare yourself for a calm and productive tomorrow.