How To Set Boundaries And Manage Stress During The Holiday Season

Kissing your stress goodbye may be as simple as learning when to say no. Consider our self-care tips and get ready to serve yourself a healthy helping of boundaries this holiday season.

December 13, 2017
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The holidays are a time for love, cheer, and tremendous gratitude. But even so, they are rarely without high levels of stress. As a lifetime perfectionist and people-pleaser, I know this all too well.

In addition to the joyful gatherings, I often experience an underlying current of desire to juggle just a few too many things in hopes of making each consecutive year one for the books. Living in a different state than most of my family members has resulted in Christmas becoming one outrageously hectic day. This is the case for many of us. From negotiating and renegotiating schedules that allow for quality time with each loved one to finding the one gift at the top of everyone’s wish list—not to mention the travel necessary to make all of this possible—it’s easy for our own needs to be swept under the rug.

Unfortunately, this creates a breeding ground for elevated stress and overtaxed emotions. And while it’s always done with pure intentions, jumping into the chaos of the holidays without a loving strategy for taking care of ourselves only causes more harm in the long run. The addition of holiday tension to our preexisting daily stressors can have a significant impact on our emotional health. In fact, according to a holiday stress report published by the American Psychological Association (APA), “holiday stress has a particular impact on women.” We are significantly more likely to experience heightened stress levels during this time of year, which is compounded by decreased time to relax and decompress.

Women are often the family members responsible for holiday organizing, shopping, and preparations, and the responsibility of managing our time in a way that also allocates adequate energy to resolving work demands, financial constraints, and household pressures can manifest as unsustainable stress. The APA notes that it’s common for this to result in poor stress-management habits. For some of us, this may mean a lack of adequate sleep. In fact, 68 percent of individuals who participated in the  holiday stress study experienced fatigue often during this time of year. For others, instances of overeating and over-drinking may increase.

The Importance of Boundaries

In an effort to maintain the holiday spirit of selflessness, we sometimes lose sight of our own real, justified needs. If you’re familiar with the concept of setting boundaries, perfect! This action is as important during the holiday season as ever. If boundaries are new to you, that’s okay, too—we’re here to help you create a streamlined approach toward investing in self-care.

No matter the scenario, setting boundaries is an essential form of self-respect. As you’re chaotically rushing to meet every expectation, it’s crucial that you tune into your own emotions. The truth is, we will show up for our loved ones as our best selves if we are also cared for. The stress of spreading ourselves too thin only creates a barrier between ourselves and meaningful, joyful connection as our minds are anxiously hopping from one task to the next. Setting boundaries helps prevent exorbitant stress by ensuring you maintain a balanced number of priorities and, as a result, are more apt to practice genuine presence.

However, as positive as this change sounds, boundaries can be difficult to voice and uphold. As the holiday stress study points out, many women are wired to please during the holidays. The fear of disappointing a loved one can catapult us into a holiday frenzy. Respecting ourselves means that there will be times when we must give ourselves the breathing room and love we need rather than tacking a new item onto the to-do list. So, during the season of giving, how do you say no?

The Power of No

Keeping the peace is important, but what does it mean when this is done at the expense of our own well-being? Despite our desires to turn into holiday Wonder Women, our human limitations are the same during these few months as they are the rest of the year. Often struggling as it is without enough hours in the day, we are acutely aware of time constraints. This also goes for our financial restrictions—yet we continue to squeeze in obligation after obligation, maybe even racking up stress-inducing credit card bills.

With the holidays quickly approaching, set aside enough time to sit down with your schedule and financial statements. First, make some time for your calendar. Outline where you will and won’t have time. Rather than attempting to fit a handful of objectives into a small timeframe, opt to focus one one or two things that are essential to you during the holidays. Two goals may be entirely manageable for you, but the third may be what sends you into a state of exhaustion. Continue to do this whenever you see an open slot in your calendar. Before you know it, you’ll have accomplished all you need to. Looking at the holiday festivities “big picture” may be a bit too overwhelming, but this habit of intentional, honest time management will help you break what might feel enormous down into smaller, more manageable steps.

Once you’ve penciled in time for shopping, gift wrapping, baking, a trip to the post office, or whatever else you’ve prioritized, it’s time to employ these same time- and energy-management strategies with family and friends. As counterintuitive as it may feel, it’s always acceptable and reasonable to say, “No, no more today.” Check your engine light and decide if you truly have the adequate emotional resources and time in the day before quickly agreeing to their plans.

Notice when and with whom you feel most drained. Perhaps this will simply result in spreading your holiday party hosting or attendance out over a week, rather than two short days, or it may mean declining invites altogether. If you know that a certain situation is sure to trigger feelings of tension and undue anxiety, this could be the time to own your “no” and stay home for a movie night—whether that’s a solo affair or includes  your kids or SO. A little Rudolph R&R and hot apple cider may be exactly what you need to replenish your energy stores before the next day of activities. It’s important to know your socialization, shopping, and commuting thresholds rather than optimistically ignoring them.

Second to time, financial limitations and gift expectations can be a major cause of stress. Look over your financial statements in the same manner you engaged your schedule. Create an appropriate budget and stick to it! It’s okay if you need to cap off the presents at X dollars this year, even if you had more wiggle room last year. Know your limit and keep this number in mind as you carefully peruse the aisles for the perfect gift. Remember that the holiday season is not centered on materialism. If the gift is given with love and sincere consideration, it is enough. There is no shame in avoiding post-holiday debt, friends. Respecting your needs means listening to your emotions as much as it means remaining cognizant of the inevitable (and continuous) bills you’ll be paying after the holidays are over.

How to Counter the Opposition

Despite knowing the necessity of setting boundaries with others, there will inevitably be times when your loved ones’ reactions leave you feeling flustered. If you find yourself worrying about how well your friend or family member will receive the new boundary you have set, it will be of particular importance to ground yourself before and after each conversation. Understand that you’re demonstrating the courage to love and care for yourself even when faced with the possibility of disappointing others.

Check in with yourself and take note of whether your request is coming from your highest self. Are you tuning in to your own needs and emotions? If so, you are speaking your truth—and this alone is enough to command respect. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, one of the women who has paved the way for the self-love revolution with her research on shame, courage, and worthiness at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, recommends a few helpful steps to help see you through when you’ve decided to say enough.

First, create a mantra to repeat to yourself as you’re preparing for a boundary-setting conversation with your loved one. Brown silently repeats “Choose discomfort over resentment” to remind herself that although it may not be easy, what she’s doing is necessary for both her physical and emotional well-being. The next step is keeping what she refers to as a resentment journal. She writes, “Whenever I’m marching around muttering cuss words under my breath, I grab what I lovingly refer to as my Damn It! Diary and write down what’s going on. I’ve noticed that I’m most resentful when I’m tired and overwhelmed—i.e., not setting boundaries.”

This not only serves as a release, but also as a tool to help you discover where in your life changes can lead to healthier relationships and better self-care. The final step is rehearsing! Setting boundaries takes practice, especially when loved ones are involved. Brown recommends practicing saying, “I can’t take that on” or “My plate is full.” Ideally, it will then be more natural (albeit still uncomfortable) when the time comes to say it in conversation.

When this is the case, ask your anxiety to take a back seat, and instead remain calm as you explain your circumstances. Enter the space with a sense of reasoning and compassion. Setting this tone may in turn allow your loved one to show up in the same manner. Dismiss any assumptions of what may transpire and speak directly to their highest self. By maintaining your own peace, your loved one will likely move away from the defense. After all, this is not an attack on them, but rather a simple and entirely healthy request.

Still, despite your calm stance, others may not have the tools to show up to the conversation with reciprocating love and respect. As challenging as it may be to speak your truth when your “no” is met with a harsh rebuttal, know that it’s necessary for you to follow through. Remind yourself that your needs are of equal importance. Your job is not—now or ever—to please everyone. It’s okay if your friend or family member finds the new boundary upsetting. Why? Because they will get over it in time.

The final consideration is knowing your audience. Not everyone will deserve a detailed explanation of why you feel the way you do. If you know the recipient is someone who has a tendency to be hurtful or manipulative, it’s perfectly acceptable to set your boundary and walk away from the conversation. As imperative as it is to use your voice, it’s equally important to protect your sacred space.

Keeping up With Self-Care

Boundaries are an essential aspect of self-care, however, there are additional practices you can incorporate to stay on top of a comprehensive self-care regimen. The APA’s holiday stress report explains that women are prone to neglecting their self-care habits during the holidays. Although self-care is often associated with things like painting your nails and getting massages, it doesn’t have to begin or end there.

Self-care also involves appreciating the validity of your emotions, practicing the power of “no” as often as you rejoice in “yes,” knowing the importance of days off of bustling, eating body- and soul-nourishing foods, reveling in a grounding yoga flow, and throwing you hair up in a messy bun while your skin enjoys a calming face mask.

Merging self-care and the benefits of exercise may be exactly what you need. If you’re feeling the need to ramp up the intensity instead of following your usual yoga practice, try fitting in a quick kettlebell workout. In just 20 to 30 minutes, your body will reap maximum benefits. Another option is to head to your local ice skating rink. Lace up your skates and practice a few dozen figure eights to get your sweat on in holiday style. If you need a family-friendly activity, this is a perfect option! With the guaranteed laughs, your stress levels are sure to drop.

One final note: Don’t neglect the importance of breathing! Yes, friends—self-care can be as simple as practicing breath work. When our anxiety gets the best of us, we often fail to give enough attention to this fundamental task. As you gear up for the holidays, try implementing a regular mediation practice. What many of us need most is a reason to slow down, and meditation provides exactly that.

If you aren’t in a space to meditate, start with taking just five minutes out of your day. When you’re feeling the brunt of the stress, slow your breathing. Start to count your inhalations and exhalations. Practice counting to five during your inhale, pausing, and exhaling at the same speed. Allow the anxious thoughts to fall away as you concentrate only on your breath and the physical sensations you experience while consciously inhaling and exhaling. This will offer you a much-need reprieve, and the best part? It can easily be done on the go.

As stressful as the holidays may be, creating space for your  personal well-being is the best gift you can give yourself this season.

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