Taking a moment out of your own busy holiday schedule to consider the nature of stress can help you enjoy, or at least survive, this important and busy time.

A chance to visit with family and friends … a two-hour delay at the airport … delicious food … too much fat and sugar … fun parties and celebrations … too much to drink … school vacation … childcare demands mean less time to get things done … holiday rituals that give life richness and meaning … too much to do.

Many people have an approach-avoidance attitude toward the winter holidays, your clients (and staff) included. Taking a moment out of your own busy holiday schedule to consider the nature of stress can help you help your clients enjoy, or at least survive, this important and busy time.

Change is a source of stress

Routines save us from wasting precious energy on the mundane details of daily living. We have a morning routine for making ourselves presentable to the world and ready for work. Life is demanding enough without having to spend time looking for your toothbrush or car keys. For most of us, the days and weeks have a certain predictable rhythm underlying the chaos that, at any time, may descend on us.

Granted, this rhythm could turn into a rut, and the holidays save us from this. During the holiday season, every routine can undergo disruption — from meals and bedtimes, to what you normally do on a Monday. And even if the change is refreshing and enjoyable, it is still something we must adapt to and is, thus, a source of stress.

Energy adaptation

Stress researchers have found that even changes in simple things, such as eating habits, job routines and housekeeping duties, can increase one’s susceptibility to stress-related illness. One of the most widely used stress-assessment questionnaires, the Social Readjustment Rating Scale,1 assigns “life-change unit” points for various sources of stress. Death of a spouse tops the list at 100 points, but even “revision of personal habits” will get you 24 points, and “change in social activities” is worth 18 points. In fact, “Christmas” has its very own entry, with 12 points. The more points in your life, the more stress you will be experiencing.

Hans Selye, one of the pioneers in the field of stress physiology, concluded that an organism has only a limited amount of energy available for adapting to environment demands. Adaptation is required whether the demands are positive or negative. His definition of stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it”2 is still used today. He observed the physiological responses to stress in laboratory animals and found that while lab rats could build up a resistance to stressors for a while, continued exposure to stress resulted in a variety of physical ills and, eventually, premature death. In later work, Selye acknowledged that people differ considerably from his laboratory subjects. But he still proposed that our energy for adaptation is similarly limited, and that we will stay healthier and live longer if we conserve this energy, when possible.

While many of us have the utmost respect for Selye’s pioneering work, we would also suggest that boredom is a stressor too. Stimulation, in the form of change, creates growth as well as stress. Recent research on stress and illness confirms that change, per se, is not the primary determinant of whether, or how much, one gets sick. Rather, it is how we respond psychologically to these changes that determines the impact stress has upon our health.

No one would suggest we get rid of holidays, vacations, weddings and family reunions. But we should take all life changes, including these positive ones, into account when planning our lives. We can try to maintain the comfortable routines that help buffer stress, and put off postponable changes for another time and save our adaptation energy for the inevitable changes of the holiday season. Then, we can apply the famous serenity prayer: change the things we can change, accept the things we can’t change, and cultivate the wisdom to know the difference.

Change the things you can change

A sense of control lightens the stress load. There are many ways to exercise your options during they busy holiday season. Begin by asking the most important question of all: What do the holidays mean to me and my family? Eliminate all logic and common sense for the moment. Pretend you have only a few precious months to live. What is really important?

The next step is to get out the calendar and make a plan. Schedule important personal and family priorities first. Then schedule in all of your other work, including social and personal commitments. Remember, it will look a lot easier on paper than it feels in real life. Unforeseen demands and problems will arise. Don’t forget to leave time open to relax.

Create opportunities to enjoy the holidays. Visiting with friends? How about a walk, a snow-shoe in the woods or a trip to the gym? Don’t be afraid to get some help. Party’s at your house? Make it a potluck, or recruit some friends to give you a hand.

The holidays can intensify existing problems. Limited financial resources are taxed further with gift-giving, party-throwing and traveling. Alcohol and co-dependency problems are exacerbated. And there’s no denying holidays can be a reminder of loss: loved ones missing and the passing of time. People who are struggling with such problems should take advantage of community resources and professional counseling opportunities. Sometimes we need help, beyond that provided by family and friends.

Accept the things you can’t change

Here’s where a positive attitude comes in. An optimistic focus is essential for enjoying the holidays, or at least surviving holiday stress. Look for the positive, cultivate your sense of humor, stick to your exercise program. You’ve done what you can, now go with the flow. Use every technique in your stress management repertoire — put on special music, light some candles, take a hot bath. Talk to your dog, write in your journal or volunteer at a soup kitchen.


Knowing the difference between changeable and unchangeable sources of stress really does require wisdom. Use all the problem-solving techniques you can think of when you get that overwhelmed feeling. When there seems to be no way out, look again. Get suggestions from friends. What if you got sick? Something would have to give. What would you get rid of? Your mental health is important, too.

Maintaining a stress-resistant lifestyle, within reason, can also help keep you healthy. Limit alcohol and eat right. Enjoy a few treats but don’t forget your vegetables. Get enough rest and plenty of exercise. Remember, too, that perfectionism is stressful. Holidays excuse some indulgence, so don’t forget to enjoy.


1. Holmes, T.H., & R.H. Rahe. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11: 213-218, 1967.

2. Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1956

By Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Psychosomatic medicine.

Use your vacation time to get fit and healthy.

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