The TARA Clinic founder and chief psychologist Tara Hurster, shares her tips on managing holiday stress this month

Holiday stress: Five healthier ways to better handle your emotions over the break

Apr 01, 2022

It’s April! Which means that Easter, ANZAC day and two weeks' worth of school holidays are all on the horizon. Theoretically, this should signal a good opportunity to relax, revive and recuperate. But the reality is that these situations can often exacerbate big feelings, like distress, or reignite the opportunity for family rows. Emotions like this can then lead us to make choices that offer immediate relief, such as using drugs or alcohol. However, these are not necessarily helpful in the long term. 

So why are we specifically talking about the link between addiction and stress this month anyway? Well, did you know that April is National Stress Awareness Month and this year’s theme is ‘Regaining Connectivity, Certainty and Control’? We couldn't agree more that stress can be seen as a modern epidemic - the last two years have proven that beyond a reasonable doubt. The good news is that it doesn't need to feel this way, so allow us to share the top five tips for managing holiday stress.

 

Why is holiday stress such a problem? 

First, let’s start with a surprising fact. A little bit of stress is healthy. In fact, some is actually vital to your survival. 

It just has been the right kind. Don’t believe that “good stress” can exist? It absolutely can! The proper term for this type of stress is “eustress” - which refers to stress that energises us, improves our performance and motivates us to make a change.

This can be compared to the more common stress that most of us are probably familiar with - “distress”. Distress is the kind that generally causes anxiety or concern, decreases our ability to function at our best, makes us feel like we can’t cope and can lead to ongoing mental and physical health problems. 

It all stems back to our caveman and women days and our brain’s flight-or-fight response. This inborn physiological reaction occurs when we’re under attack - like being eaten alive by a sabre-toothed tiger.

It all stems back to our caveman and women days and our brain’s flight-or-fight response. This inborn physiological reaction occurs when we’re under attack - like being eaten alive by a sabre-toothed tiger. 

Even today, healthy stress is a way to motivate us or allow us to be proactive about problems in our lives. The issues is that we live in a modern world where stress increases the flight-or-fight response in the brain and makes it difficult to make clear decisions about whether we should view a situation in a way that brings about eustress or distress.

If we look at these everyday stressors with freaked out goggles on, then our perception of that will result in us squirting out those chemicals in our brain and having the outcome that perpetuates the problem.

Between the challenges of balancing work/home life, spending extended periods of time with misbehaving kids, and playing host to difficult family members over the break, it’s not really a surprise that your holiday stress can hit an all-time high. Or that many people will indulge in an extra glass of wine or other substances to take the edge off. 

This is because alcohol, and drugs (in fact almost any addictive behaviours) are based on mood-altering experiences that make us feel different. The problem is that when we use drinking/drugs/other behaviour as a coping mechanism for long-term stress, it can become addictive. And can cause a number of issues that will remain unresolved until you really address the “big feelings” you’re trying to avoid.

In these cases, we recommend adopting a combination of the following five alternatives below: 

 

Handling holiday stress through mental breaks and mindfulness 

You might be tempted to juggle all of the balls, but research indicates that taking short, frequent breaks can actually help us reduce stress, concentrate better and ultimately accomplish more.

In a similar way, mindfulness forces you to take a moment to identify the triggers that cause your experience of anxiety and learn how to tackle them. Slowing down will open your mind to new opportunities, insights and potential ways to solve a problem. And just taking five minutes to consciously breathe can reduce anxiety, increase oxygen to the brain and give your body permission to let go of physical tension. Bonus tip: Your sleep will also usually improve and with that, so too will your overall capacity to make better lifestyle choices. 

 

Healthy habits: Diet

Stress levels and a poor diet are closely related. When we’re overwhelmed, we often resort to using mood-altering substances such as drugs, alcohol and, yes, even, fast-foods for a just-as-fast pick-me-up. And, although occasionally indulging in some comfort food is okay - even encouraged! - it can become a problem if you regularly find yourself reaching for a chocolate fix to, well, fix your problems. 

Instead, try switching to healthier wholefoods and including good sources of omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, walnuts, avocado) which have been shown to reduce the symptoms of stress, and will generally leave you feeling happier and healthier. 

 

… and exercise

It’s a similar situation with exercise. While it may feel like the last thing you want to factor in when you are stressed with holiday to-do lists, a good workout can help you manage feelings of anxiety. Whether you go for a run, sweat it out with a weights session at the gym or just take a few minutes to practice some Pilates poses, exercise works by distracting you from the very things you are anxious about, as well as encouraging the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.

There’s also a bit of caveperson story-roots to using exercise as a form of stress release: When we move our body, we trick our brain into thinking that we have successfully either run away from the tiger or killed the tiger and therefore the threat is now gone … which I think sums up its benefits pretty nicely! 

 

Journalling 

If in doubt, write it out! Studies have shown that journalling can help reduce stress by serving as a movement away from avoiding thoughts and feeling to possibly understanding them better. Writing (or typing!) out your emotions is also one of the best ways to get in touch with them, by forcing you to focus your internal awareness on your experiences. This can help you identify what’s causing these symptoms - after which it can be easier to work on a plan to alleviate these problems.

 

Professional support 

Finally, it can be really helpful to speak with a professional about your relationship with holiday stress, and how the lifestyle choices you are making to handle it are affecting your wellbeing. Ultimately expert advice can help you customise a strategy to manage your stress in helpful ways that give you back control over your life.