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8 Science-Backed Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress

8 Science-Backed Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress

By Lily Dulberg, Contributing blogger

Between the pandemic, election, and holidays, it’s no wonder we feel immense pressure and stress. Preliminary research from the University of California, Irvine, shows that stress and depression are on the rise. Researchers attribute this to a number of factors, including the media cycle, unemployment, and pandemic-related stresses.

With the holidays around the corner, not only are we dealing with the typical stress of planning, prepping, and gathering, but we’re trying to mitigate the risks amidst a global pandemic.

Behavioral and cognitive therapies provide us with tools and tips to reduce stress levels and promote a sense of well-being and calm. According to self-determination theory, humans need to meet needs in these three areas to stay motivated long term: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence relates to our ability to and belief that we have the skills necessary to achieve what we are striving towards. Relatedness is satisfied when we feel connected to the community and people around us, feeling a sense of universality of experience. Autonomy is when we feel in control of our decisions, behaviors, and choices.  When our needs for these three are met, we can stay motivated even in the most tumultuous of times. 

We’ve put together 8 evidence-based practices for you to integrate into your holiday routine.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Tuning in to how your entire body feels can connect you deeply to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Progressive muscle relaxation can help relieve tension in your body and mind. It works like this: you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. Try a guided progressive muscle relaxation when you’re feeling overwhelmed this holiday season.


Mindfulness has swept the internet as a trendy way to decompress, but what’s behind it? Over 200 studies of mindfulness, most focusing on mindfulness meditation among healthy people, found mindfulness-based therapy was effective for stress-reduction. To build it into your daily routine, try an app that can provide guided meditations, send reminders, and track your progress.

Deep belly breathing (aka Diaphragmatic Breathing)

Day-to-day, we live our lives on alert, ready for the next hurdle to be thrown our way. This keeps the nervous system in a constant state of defense, known as fight-or-flight mode. The parasympathetic nervous system is made up of complex elements, including the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve is proven to reduce inflammation and anxiety, and induce a “relaxation response” in the body. So, how can you do this? Queue controlled breathing exercises (AKA diaphragmatic breathing). Take a deep inhale and imagine filling your stomach with fresh, clean air. Hold for a second, and slowly and evenly empty the air all the way out. Try visualizing yourself filling up a balloon and slowly letting it allllll go. Phew. Feels nice, doesn’t it? Repeat throughout the day when you feel even the slightest pang of anxiety creeping up. 

Connect with people you love.

Whether it be through video call or safely in-person, now more than ever it is crucial to stay connected to your loved ones. When we interact with people we love, our brains produce increased levels of serotonin.

Stick to a routine, as much as possible.

Healthy habits are easier to stick to when performed at the same time, in the same place, daily.  With a busy holiday season, you may find yourself running around, visiting family, with your routine completely out-of-whack. Be sure to keep some semblance of normalcy, whether it’s reading with your morning coffee in hand, or taking time to meditate before bed.

Keep small promises to yourself.

Self-trust is one of the most integral parts of our belief in our own self-determination. You may notice signs of burnout within yourself if you neglect to keep promises and set aside time to do the things that bring you a sense of peace. If you notice irritability, lack of motivation, and depression, you might need to take a breather. Here are some techniques to do this.

Practice your traditions, even if altered slightly.

Although we might have to take extra precaution this holiday season in the midst of COVID-19, that doesn’t mean we can’t participate in our favorite holiday activities. Organize your own family 5K if your local turkey trot isn’t happening, play board games, and bake your favorite classic cookies.

Move your body, even if only for 10 minutes.

Have a few minutes during your lunch break? Get your body moving. One study found that even just 10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise (think jogging, HIIT, swimming, etc.) can pack a major punch. Participants exhibited increased peak oxygen levels, improved mood, and easier breathing. Building movement into your pre- and post-holiday routine can help you breathe easier, quite literally.

Find a stress-management practice (or a few) that does the trick for you. With some help from science, we can engineer our stress responses in times where we may feel out of control. This holiday season surely looks different than anything we’ve experienced before, making it all the more urgent to engage in self-care and mindful activity to prepare, enjoy, and indulge.