It is that time of the year again.  In one week, American families across the country will have already celebrated Thanksgiving.  When most of us picture this holiday in our minds, we think of time with family and friends, everyone sitting around the table, and plates full of turkey, cranberry sauce, biscuits, varied side dishes galore, and of course, dessert.  For many, Thanksgiving is a fun time to get together with loved ones, eat lots of food, and express ‘thanks.’  However, this time of year can be very stressful – even for those who enjoy Thanksgiving. For others, this time of year can bring dread, anxiety, or even sadness.  Periods of high stress can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and then there is the added pressure to “be on” when company is around.

Whether the holidays are positive and exciting times, conjure up bad (or sad) memories from years past, or are just generally overwhelming, read on for some strategies to de-stress during this time of year:

  1. Acknowledge your thoughts.  If you have high expectations about making this year’s meal “perfect” or concerns about dynamics between guests, acknowledge these thoughts.  Only then can you rationalize them or develop a plan for how you will intervene or (perhaps better), not give them your energy! Modify your expectations by accepting that life is unpredictable and you aren’t responsible for others’ happiness.
  2. Acknowledge your feelings.  Rather than pretend you are ready and excited, realize its common to feel stressed and perhaps even anxious or sad during the holidays.  One of the most difficult parts of holidays for some people is being reminded of past negative events around this time of year, or the death of loved ones.  If someone close to you has recently died and will no longer be there to celebrate, or if you can’t be with loved ones this Thanksgiving, accept that it is normal to feel reminiscent, grief, loneliness, and sadness. And, it is more than okay to take time to cry or express your emotions.
  3. Focus on the positive, even if you have to find it.  Some people simply feel forced to participate in Thanksgiving family or friend gatherings.  Even if this isn’t your thing (no matter what the reason), there is still at least one positive aspect to be gleaned from this time of year.  Perhaps recognizing that you have social support, have family, have friends, have food to eat, have a place to go, or that you are not alone are all positives to focus on.  After all, this is Thanksgiving.  Find something to be thankful for and focus your energy on that.
  4. Learn to say NO.  Know your limits, and set them; it is more than okay to do so.  That being said, don’t take on too much responsibility simply because you are being asked to do so.  Saying ‘yes’ when you know you should be saying ‘no’ will likely only increase your stress and may lead to resentment.  Refrain from over-committing or over-extending yourself with too many responsibilities to complete.
  5. Get adequate rest. Changes in schedules often result in stress, and can intensify anxiety and depression. This is especially true when entertaining out-of-town guests.  When possible, try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time, eat meals when you normally do, and do your other activities as usual (e.g., exercise).
  6. Plan as much as possible ahead of time.  Nothing leads to more stress than waiting until the last minute to plan, buy, and prepare everything for your Thanksgiving gathering. Being prepared ahead of time can help you to feel ready and allow you to move along at a steady, rather than rushed, pace.
  7. Accept help from others.  This is especially true for hosts!  If others are offering help by way of purchasing or preparing food, or even helping to clean up at the end of the day, accept it!  There is no rule that says you must do this all yourself, and typically doing so only leads to less enjoyment and more stress.  It is normal and human to ask for help and support.  After all, this is your holiday, too.  How much can you really enjoy this day if you are cooking, organizing, decorating, hosting, bartending, and cleaning the whole time?  …while everyone else sits back and relaxes.
  8. Take breaks.  It is important to not spend every last minute doing something to prepare for or clean up after your guests.  Whether its five minutes or 30, schedule some down time so you can walk away from the festivities of the day to regroup and relax your body and mind.  Go for a walk or run, do some deep breathing exercises, browse the internet, listen to calming music, or read a chapter in a book.  Taking breaks will help you to feel more composed and ready to return to the day’s preparations.
  9. Don’t overeat.  While it may be tempting to eat as much as possible (as this is a social norm for this holiday), overeating can lead to feeling sluggish and sad.  Try to limit your food intake by using portion control strategies and refraining from seconds and thirds.
  10. Don’t drink too much.  Yes folks, alcohol is a depressant.  Drinking may initially help you to feel more relaxed, but drinking too much can lead to feeling even more sadness, fatigue, and withdrawn from others (and of course, the possibility of being hung over).  If you are concerned about social pressure, be prepared by planning a good response if someone asks why you aren’t drinking.
  11. Talk to a professional.  This is by no means a last resort, but may feel like one given all the other demands of Thanksgiving preparations. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling sad or anxious, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, or unable to complete routine tasks. If these feelings persist, talk to a mental health professional.
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