13 Surprising Ways to Calm Your Holiday Anxiety

“], “filter”: { “nextExceptions”: “img, blockquote, div”, “nextContainsExceptions”: “img, blockquote, a.btn, a.o-button”} }”>

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members!
>”,”name”:”in-content-cta”,”type”:”link”}}”>Download the app.

Tis the season to be jolly…and overworked, frazzled, exhausted, freezing, overcommitted, broke, and stressed out. The days are shorter, the nights colder, and the to-do lists longer. There are backyards to winterize, presents to buy, parties to host, roofs to repair thanks to the first big storm, cookies to decorate, professional projects to wrap up, children’s recitals and plays to attend, Honeybaked hams and Tofurkeys to procure, and end-of-the-year reviews to endure. And to top it all off, you’re likely about to spend a lot of time in close quarters with family members who know how to work your last nerve. As wonderful as the end of the year can be, there’s also a lot of holiday anxiety to cope with, especially considering current events and the constant connection we have to the news via social media.

“Stress and anxiety are at an all-time high, and almost everyone seeking therapy reports the same cluster of symptoms: burnout, stress, anxiety, a numbing disconnect, and even a hopelessness about life,” reports Dr. Chandler Chang, a clinical psychologist and founder of online personalized mental-health plan provider Therapy Lab. “Hypervigilance is wiping us out, affecting our sleep, motivation, concentration, and ability to connect with each other.”

Things can get particularly dicey as the holidays draw near or weather worsens. Our daily routines are disrupted and we’re left with chronic stress, Chang theorizes. “Stress is taxing on our bodies and can impact sleep, our health, decision-making, and our ability to connect with others,” she says.

That’s why it’s important to cultivate what Chang calls “intentional mood boosts.” These small actions—Chang recommends things like “making a weekly soup, creating an amazing playlist, or [indulging] in a candlelit soak”—spark big joy. The best part is that they don’t have to be overly complicated, expensive, or even particularly unique to work their vibe-changing magic.

No one can mentally afford to sit around like a bump on a yule log, white-knuckling it until spring has sprung. Instead, turn to this list of expert-recommended, science-backed strategies to calm down, decompress, and safeguard your sanity during shiver season.

13 Ways to Calm Your Holiday Anxiety

1. Light Up

No, we’re not talking about smoking a Seth Rogen special—although lots of people swear by sinsemilla’s sedative effects. Get your mind out of the head shop. We’re making the case for burning a scented candle to set the mood to meditative to cleanse bad energy and enhance mental clarity. Or rather, let New York City-based aromatherapist Amy Galper do it for you.

“Focus on the dancing flame and smell the fragrance lifting into the space,” says Galper, founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy and an ambassador for Caldrea. “It offers us an experience of stillness and peace.”

Galper suggests finding candles in scents that conjure fond memories and take you to a happy place. “Our sense of smell has this remarkable capacity to instantly connect to our nervous system, triggering the part of our unconscious mind that releases the proteins and enzymes responsible for how we react to external and internal stressors,” she says. “That means when we smell something we recognize as pleasant, it immediately soothes us.”

For winter whiffs, she recommends juniper, frankincense, clove, and peppermint. Candles aren’t the only way to harness the power of our sniffers. Get an aromatherapy fix from essential oil-dabbed wrists, diffusers, a bouquet of flowers, fragrant soaps, or lavender eye pillows.

2. (Yoga) Practice Makes Perfect

Given that you’re currently reading Yoga Journal, we’re going to assume (despite what colloquial wisdom warns us about that) you know that getting your butt on a mat and moving provides numerous health benefits. But not every type of yoga has the same effect on your brain. Though some folks respond better to intense practices, demanding teachers, and hot studios, slow flow and yin or restorative sessions are usually your best bet for calming the mind and soothing tension thanks to long holds and deep exhalations. Bend and breathe your way to a better mood with this nighttime routine or this 10-minute sequence.

The release of oxytocin, which happens during any behavior that incites arousal, can bring a calming effect. (Photo: Alleksana | Pexels)(Photo: Vadimguzhva | Getty)

3. Let’s Talk About Sex

Winter is coming and Dr. Carol Queen, the in-house sexologist at Good Vibes, hopes for the sake of your sanity that you are, too. “Sex, solo or not, and orgasms can be a self-care activity and a bright spot of pleasure when we’re chilly, less active, and experiencing the effects of too little light,” says Queen.

“Arousal signals a change in brain chemicals and hormones like oxytocin. Sometimes called the cuddle or love hormone, oxytocin can have a relaxing effect,” Queen continues. “With arousal and the build-up to orgasm, our musculature gets involved—contractions of the pelvic floor, sheet-clutching, toe-curling, and arched backs—and orgasm allows for a release of these tightened muscles [accompanied by] a feeling of relaxation.”

You don’t even have to go all the way to benefit from frisky business. Queen explains, “Any sensual and sex-adjacent behavior engaged in with desire and enthusiastic consent is likely to help you get through winter doldrums. Sex is how many adults play and that gives us joy and relaxation.” The Queen has spoken.

4. Napper’s Delight

If you do the aforementioned mood booster right, you might need to follow it up with this one. People, we are talking about the glorious act of taking a nap. (And just so we’re clear: pre-nap petting is not a prerequisite to grabbing some extra zzzzzs.)

“Napping may relieve stress, improve alertness, and also be good for your emotions,” according to a University of Rochester Medical Center blog citing a study that found napping might “block negative feelings like frustration and impulsiveness.”

While there is some research that suggests not all naps are good naps, the publication suggested guidelines for superior siestas that won’t disrupt your more important overnight sleep: Llimit naps to 20 to 30 minutes and set an alarm to ensure you rise in order to shine, immediately stand up and get moving when your time is up, disconnect from tech and bright lights, and don’t nap after 3 p.m.

5. Security Blankets

To make your nap game even stronger, invest in a high-quality weighted blanket. These comforters, which are typically filled with beads, mimic deep touch pressure therapy, acupressure, and massage, each of which has been found by research to bring on a calming sensation. Not only that, they can promote better sleep and lower physiological stress levels by reducing stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (which incites the fight-or-flight response) and turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls the body’s ability to relax).

Deep pressure can lower cortisol levels and increase serotonin production, which Chang says can come in handy when bad days (hello, holiday anxiety) call for curling up in a ball and sitting in your feelings until they subside.

She also suggests that weighted blankets can elevate your next Netflix-and-chill session. “Get your favorite tea, dim the lights, grab the blanket, and watch a sad movie,” she says.  “I love to recommend a paradoxical approach to negative emotions and winter-y variables. Half the stress of managing negative emotions comes from our desire not to feel. If you let go of that and embrace the moment with an observant eye, then the burden tends to lighten and makes room for something new.”

6. Fire Restarter

If a candle sparks chill vibes, imagine what sitting by a warm fireplace, campfire, or firepit could do for the nerves. After all, what is a roaring fire if not a supersized scented candle?

“There is something very deeply sedating about watching flames flicker and dance,” Galper says. “I’d guess it has something to do with a deep connection to our ancient roots. Sitting around a fire, hearing the crackling, and smelling the aromas from the burning wood and plant materials offers a kind of all-sensory grounding.”

Does a bonfire of the sanities sound like your kind of good time but your home is hearth-less? Never fear. Find a restaurant or resort near you that has one in a public space and borrow theirs. Or plan a different kind of tinder date in a park or campground that is pro-pyre. Fire, fresh air, and flora are a tranquility trifecta.

7. Meditate On It

We get it. Monks make meditation look easy, but it sure ain’t easy to quiet the mind and stop ruminating about everything you need to get done, the disappointing meeting you had with your kid’s teacher, or the weird interaction you had with Janice in accounting. But sitting in stillness is worth trying, even if just for a minute or two.

According to the Mayo Clinic, meditating engenders “a sense of calm, peace, and balance that can benefit both your emotional well-being and your overall health.” It also lowers your resting heart rate and blood pressure, helps you focus your mind, increases self-awareness, and helps you find some emotional balance throughout the day.

Whether you practice guided, mantra, mindfulness, tai chi, qi gong, or transcendental meditation, there’s also evidence that the brain releases more dopamine, one of the four feel-good hormones, during meditation. Dopamine delivers intense feelings of pleasure and reward (yes, please!). Further squash stress by pairing meditation with pranayama (breathwork).

8. Sip, Sip, Hooray

Baby, it’s cold outside, so put the kettle on and make yourself a hot drink. First, grab the mug in your mitts and feel your hands heat up. Next, cool things down just a smidge by taking some deep exhalations and letting the steam rise and open your pores. Then, slowly sip, noticing the curative concoction making the journey down your throat and into your belly, turning your insides warm and fuzzy.

Herbal tea is your healthiest bet. Choose chamomile, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and calming effects, as a sleep aid, and for PMS relief, or peppermint to quell fussy tummies and boost antioxidants. Boost your immune system with echinacea and rose hips because there’s nothing more stressful than being sick during the busy holiday season.

If hot cocoa is more your taste, make sure it’s of the dark chocolate variety with 70% or more cacao, as scientists have linked improved moods and decreased anxiety with its magnesium and flavonoids. A hot toddy (there’s a reason the cocktail is nicknamed “hot penicillin”) can also help take the edge off, although alcohol is also known to cause insomnia and have a negative effect of REM sleep.

9. Soak Off Stress

Rub-a-dub-dub, jump in a tub. Balneotherapy is a form of therapeutic bathing popular in Germany, Turkey, Spain, and the Czech Republic. “Submersion in warm water calms the physiological part of the fight-or-flight response,” explains Jonathan P. DeVierville, vice president of the International Society of Medical Hydrology and Climatology, in a 2021 article for Yoga Journal. Let yourself steep, submerged to the neck (as long as you don’t suffer from respiratory or heart issues), for 15 to 20 minutes in water that’s between 98.6 and 104 degrees F to trigger blood vessel dilation, increased circulation, muscle relaxation, and nervous system de-escalation.

Galper suggests adding some essential oils or plant-based aromas—frankincense, ginger, and lavender are her warming wintery scents of choice—to level up your watery winding down. “Bathing is deeply integrated into so many ancient cultures [that] recognized the powerful combination of warm water and aroma,” she says. “An aromatic bath is truly a holistic experience, relaxing and releasing tension and stress in the mind and body simultaneously.”

Impromptu dance parties—solo or otherwise—can release some of that pent-up tension. (Photo: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty)

10. Dance Dance Revelation

In their New York Times-bestselling book Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski assert that to return the body to a state of relaxation and prevent burning out, one must complete the “biological stress response cycle.” And according to them, physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing it.

Physical movement is what tells your brain that your body has successfully survived the threat and is now in a safe place. “Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with things that cause your stress. Your body has no idea what filing taxes or resolving intrapersonal conflict through rational problem solving means. It knows what jumping up and down is. Speak its language,” they write.

The sisters recommend various methods of doing this, including daily walks, yoga, or coloring, but none are more fun than an impromptu dance party. Turn up your favorite high-energy track and boogie down to get the heart rate up and keep going until you make like Taylor Swift and shake it off by wearing your body’s stress response out. Once you stop and your breathing and heartbeat naturally slow, you’ll know you’ve “cycled through.”

You’ll reap the benefits of cutting a rug whether you have Beyonce-level skills or those that more closely resemble my in-laws at a wedding. And just like sex, you can go it alone or do it with someone special.

11. The Great Outdoors

Like plants, humans need regular hits of sunlight. Exposure to the Sun’s ultraviolet rays trigger the skin to produce vitamin D3, which is turned into an active form of vitamin D with an assist from the kidneys and liver. That’s a crucial component in serotonin production and release, which is credited with boosting moods, increasing focus, and inducing calm.

Unfortunately, between shorter days, longer nights, gloomy weather, and holiday anxiety, winter can make it hard to score those vital doses of liquid gold and vitamin D that lift our spirits and keep seasonal sadness packed away with our bikinis. “Winter light and weather that keep us inside really do impact our physiological susceptibility to anxiety and depression,” Chang explains. “The good news is that getting early morning sunlight and/or using a light box [which emits light that mimics sunshine] are ways to make up the deficits.”

12. Puzzle Your Way to Peace Of Mind

Since jigsaw puzzles were invented in the 1700s, they’ve served a multitude of purposes, including promoting dexterity and problem solving in children, cultivating bonding amongst strangers on cruise ships and providing multi-generational entertainment during snowed-in holidays. More recently, researchers have conducted studies that prove the positive effects of puzzling—jigsaw, crossword, sudoku, or otherwise—on our aging minds and grumpy moods.

The focus and cognitive demands the puzzles require provide leisure palliative coping. This is a fancy way of saying the activity gives your brain a breather from stressors by creating a diversion and inducing  a meditative-like state. And nothing beats the satisfying rush of putting the last piece in place.

13. Just Say No

When all else fails in the war against stress, remember that retreating is always an option. Not forever, of course, because socializing has been proven to increase longevity. But most of us could benefit from turning things down on occasion. According to a 2019 study by leadership training company VitalSmarts, Americans are tragically overcommitted, with 60 percent of people routinely taking on more tasks than they have time to finish. Another 20 percent admitted that they were already at their limit.

Overflowing calendars and to-do lists destroy our mental state by causing holiday anxiety and feelings of both being overwhelmed and inadequate. Accept the limitations of time, focus on what is truly most important first, and normalize passing on invitations, asking for help, divvying up responsibilities at work and home, and dedicating time to rest and recharge.

And remember, “no” is a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for using it.

About Our Contributor

Failed middle school Pumpkin Queen, second-generation Deadhead, mediocre yogi, cupcake connoisseur, board game enthusiast, and lover of puns and dystopian novels, Carrie Bell has known she wanted to be a magazine writer journalist since seventh grade. She started her career writing about pop culture and celebrities for the likes of People, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo, Us, and Billboard. A decade in, Bell craved less narcissism and new challenges, and thus branched out to cover travel, weddings, wellness, food and drink, and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Fodor’s, TripSavvy, Reader’s Digest, Oprah Daily, Brides, Architectural Digest, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, and Hotels Above Par. She’s been to 45 countries and only has six states left in her 50 x 50 challenge. (Follow her adventures and musings on Instagram at @MissCarrieBell.) She lives in Los Angeles with two cats, an engineer, a snow globe collection, a fridge that is always stocked with dairy products, and plenty of residual childhood trauma. 


We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply