Minimizing holiday stress

30 November 2022

Minimizing holiday stress

The holiday season is often a wonderful time for getting together, but it can also cause stress. Catherine Raymond, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at UQAM, shares concrete strategies to help minimize holiday stress.

Fêtes de noel

You are a stress specialist. If I say “caregiver,” what comes to mind?

I think of a very subjective and unique individual, with their own emotions and pace of life, who gives of themselves to support someone else. Many caregivers see their lives turned upside down, feel overwhelmed by events, with the feeling that they are not doing enough, that they are not up to the task…

Caregivers accumulate the stress of the person being cared for in addition to their own. It has been shown that in the caregiver-assisted dyad, when one person is helped to reduce their own stress, the other person’s stress is also reduced. Just imagine the image of the oxygen mask on an airplane: you have to put your own on first before you can help others. When it comes to stressful situations, we must act in the same way: we must first manage our own stress before that of the other person. Hence the importance of taking time for oneself and applying strategies to regulate stress.

As the holidays approach, how can we recognize stress and its associated signs?

A good trick is to listen to our bodies. Stress hormones circulate in the bloodstream and reach many areas of our body. In a stressful situation, we will experience several physiological symptoms: racing heart, rapid breathing, sweating, restlessness or stomach aches (diarrhea, constipation, urgent need to urinate, heartburn). Gastrointestinal symptoms are common and frequently caused by stress.

Stress hormones also affect our brain, which regulates our emotions and helps us concentrate. In a stressful situation, the brain can send us several signals: insomnia, concentration problems, spontaneous anger, impatience, irritability, overwhelming sadness or difficulty controlling an unpleasant emotion.

When any of these symptoms occur, it is time to ask yourself, “Is there something different about my day-to-day life right now?” Holidays, for example! Or, “Have there been any changes in the situation of the person I am caring for or in my own life?”

In fact, what triggers stress (except in the case of major stressors such as an earthquake) are situations that contain one or more of the following characteristics: novelty, unpredictability, threat to ego, and sense of low control. These stress ingredients can be classified under the acronym N.U.T.S.


Can you tell us more about the “N.U.T.S.” stress triggers?

There are two types of stress. The first is absolute stress, which is caused by a situation that threatens our survival. For example, suffering from a life-threatening illness is a form of absolute stress. The second type, relative stress, is experienced much more often in everyday life. It is relative to the person, and depends on their subjectivity and experience. In this case, it is all about how we interpret a situation that, although it does not threaten our own survival, activates our biological stress system.

Research shows that no matter what type of stress we experience, the response is always “as if” there was a threat to our survival. For example, we are at the park with our autistic child and we feel the eyes turn to us when they become disorganized. This situation produces a stress response “as if” it represents a threat to our survival, even if these looks do not constitute a real threat to our existence.

Relative stress occurs when faced with a situation that involves one or more of the following four components of N.U.T.S.:

  • Novelty: Your sick relative moves into your home. You have to get used to this new reality and reorganize your family life.
  • Unpredictability: An unpredictable event occurs in your daily life. For example, the doctor calls to make an appointment for your spouse this afternoon. But you have a big day at work ahead of you and can’t fit this appointment into your schedule! Another unpredictable situation is the difficulty in predicting the outcome of a given situation. For example, you take a parent to the clinic for medical tests and then wait around for the results…
  • Threat to the ego: In the example of the child in the park, all eyes are on you…
  • Sense of control: You feel that you have no control over the situation. To use the example of the child in the park, you feel that you have no control over the gaze and judgment of others.

One of these components is enough to trigger the stress system. The more components there are in a situation, the greater the stress.

Do you have any concrete tips for minimizing holiday stress?

You need to learn to recognize the signs of stress (heart racing, stomach aches, insomnia…) and understand what triggers them.

For example, this year you have a limited budget for holiday gifts. You’re worried that you won’t be able to buy as many as you’d like. You recognize the unpredictability of the situation: you don’t know if you will be able to buy all those gifts.

Another example: every year, you have your family over for the holidays and everything has to be absolutely perfect. But this year, because of your role as a caregiver, it is impossible for everything to be perfect. Your ego is threatened.

Determining the characteristics of the situation that stresses us (N.U.T.S.) allows us to better manage it.

So, in the previous example, to eliminate unpredictability, you decide not to buy gifts, and instead give your family and friends homemade cookies as presents. And for the holiday dinner, you simply don’t have time to prepare a perfect meal. Plan A: You decide not to host the dinner this year. Plan B: You are hosting, but everyone brings a dish to enjoy.

This approach allows you to discover which component of N.U.T.S. you are most sensitive to. This way, you can organize your days to avoid this particular component as much as possible!

What can be done when it is impossible to find strategies to eliminate one of the components of stress?

Alternative strategies can be developed. For example:

  • Set aside time for yourself. For some people, it’s not possible to allow themselves much time. In this case, a simple solution would be to take a few moments to do an activity that we enjoy. For example, take ten minutes to go for a walk, complete a crossword puzzle, call a friend, go to bed a few minutes earlier and enjoy a few relaxing moments to read…
  • Get off the couch, play sports. It is important to burn off energy, because a stressful situation mobilizes a lot of energy. The stress system evolves; it is there to allow us to fight or flee the enemy. To use the park example, you’re not going to fight people or run away from them. But your body is preparing you for it. Take a few moments to use that energy. Walking, for example, helps to release that pent-up energy.
  • Social support is key! Connect with people. Reach out to trusted, caring people or join a support group to share and let go of what’s weighing you down.

It’s almost Christmas… What stresses you out the most during the holidays and how do you cope?

My biggest stress is seeing everyone, being there for the people I love! I am in a caregiving situation; my mother has generalized cancer. Managing all this during the holiday season is not easy… Above all, I want to be able to offer what I want to offer to my family and friends.


After completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the Université de Montréal and a master’s degree and doctorate in neuroscience on the effects of childhood adversity on adult stress, Catherine Raymond is now working to better understand childhood stress and its repercussions, including anxiety and psychological depression. She is also working on a second doctorate in psychology to become a youth clinician.

Interview by Karine Cloutier, Communications Project Manager at l’Appui pour les proches aidants. Thank you to Catherine Raymond for this “stress-free” dialogue!

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