Between shopping for gifts, preparing for lavish dinners, and having visiting relatives and friends, the holiday season creates more stress than we might realize. This can lead to feeling burned out, tired, cranky and it might even make us miss out on the joy that is supposed to accompany this season.

What’s the Point of Being Stressed?

Stress is caused by the thought that we are in danger. The natural, inborn response is to either fight or flee, depending on which response to the threat would make more sense and be more life-saving. When we see or hear something that makes us feel threatened, we get that fight-or-flight response, which starts with a part of our brains called the amygdala. The job of the amygdala is to perceive when we’re under threat and to marshal a whole survival-oriented response to the threat. Another part of the brain, the hypothalamus, gets the message that we’re under threat and it releases certain hormones (chemical messengers) that help us fight or flee. Our perception of the environment changes and we become focused on protecting ourselves from danger. Respiration, heart rate, muscle tension, and energy level all change to facilitate fighting or fleeing.

It is a beautiful, efficient system meant to protect us from immediate harm. The problem is, we have very complex brains that sometimes perceive threat where there isn’t any and that hang onto perceived danger even after it is gone. We might make something like what other people think of us as important as being chased by a hungry animal or having someone come after us with a knife or gun. With prolonged stress, we learn to adapt to it but our bodies still suffer and pay the price of being on high alert. Eventually, if we stay stressed too long, it can make us depressed, anxious, physically or mentally ill, and exhausted. The good news is we can change our response to stress with our complicated brains too.

Get to the Bottom of Your Holiday Stress: 15 Questions

Instead of providing pat answers on how to reduce stress, like simplify and manage your time well, I think it is more useful to look at what makes holidays stressful in the first place. Many of us have heard about simplification and time management, but there is a reason that those tips don’t always help lower stress. We need to look within and ask ourselves:

1) What do I really want out of my holidays?

2) What is important to me, and to my family (if applicable)?

3) How can I balance my wants and needs with the needs and wants of others?

4) How do I care for myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

5) What is at stake if things don’t go as planned?

6) What is the worst that will happen if they don’t go as planned?

7) What is the purpose of my activities?

8) What is the intent behind them?

9) What would I do if I could do anything with time off? Who’s stopping me?

10) Who am I trying to impress? Whose standards am I trying to fulfill?

11) Do I value that person’s opinion?

12) What will happen if I let that other person or myself down?

13) If I’m giving gifts, do I really want to make that person happy, or do I simply feel obliged to give them something because of my affiliation with them?

14) How much energy am I willing to put into giving them a gift?

15) If I’m cooking a meal, what is my intent there? Do I want to make it look like something out of Good Housekeeping, or is the purpose to enjoy the company of the people I’m hosting? Would it be easier for me to ask people to bring side dishes, to reduce my stress and feel more relaxed, gracious, and happy to see them?

What Now? Take Action

All these questions can help re-organize your priorities, and help you remember the reason for your activities. Once you realize your true intent, then it becomes easier to apply those chestnuts of time management and simplification. Becoming clear about what the holidays mean to you, and setting an intention for making your activities and emotions fit those intentions, are the first steps. Managing your time, energy, and expectations comes next. I hope that you and your loved ones have a meaningful, beautiful holiday season.

*Lisa Larsen, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist dedicated to helping people heal. Her desire to be of service to her community, specifically those who have suffered from traumatic events as well as low self-esteem and negativity, led her to her career in therapy.