MARY GANZEL: Tips to help decrease holiday stress and depression

HEALTH & FITNESS: The holiday season can be a joyful time, but it can also be stressful and depressing at times

Mary Ganzel

Mary Ganzel

I remember enjoying so many amazing Christmas holidays with my family when I was growing up. I remember the year my three older sisters and I got go-go boots as Christmas presents. It was during that time that Nancy Sinatra was well known for her hit song, “These Boots are Made for Walking.” How many of you remember that song?

For the most part, my grandmother was our Santa Claus, as she was the one who would foot the bill for a lot of the gifts Santa brought us. She worked as a post office manager, so although she received a lot of pleasure from helping Mom and Dad out with Christmas, the time of year was very stressful due to the volume of mail coming through her office. I can only imagine what it was like for her to sort through all the Christmas cards and ensure packages arrived at the homes in time for Christmas.

Although many people associate the holidays with fun and laughter and spending time with family and friends, others struggle to see the splendor of the season. Even as I’ve gotten older, the actual events leading up to the celebration have changed.

I’ve lived away from my family for more than 20 years, and during this time there have been marriages, grandkids, great grandkids, divorce and the loss of family members. All of this changes how holiday traditions are carried out and influence how people feel about them. Holidays can be stressful for many people. After searching the Internet for stress and the holidays, it’s evident that Christmastime is not fun for everyone. There are so many great articles on managing holiday stress that can be found online. For this article, I decided to pass on some of the helpful tips recommended by the Mayo Clinic and found in A LifeCare Guide.


Make a “to-do” list. List the tasks that need to be done in order of their importance. This will ensure that the high priority items will get done.

Don’t over-commit. Don’t say yes to every holiday invitation. Pick the events and activities that are most important to you, and say no to others.

Get organized. Keep all of your appointments clearly marked on one calendar and update it regularly.

Use down time to your advantage. Cook and freeze meals for the week; fill your car with gas; take care of your laundry/dry cleaning; write holiday cards; shop; etc.

Simplify tasks. Purchase food that is easy to prepare, combine errands into one trip, and set aside a block of time to do tasks (e.g., returning telephone calls, paying bills, etc.).

Ask for help. If you are in charge of holiday meals, consider making it potluck or enlist the help of your family and/or friends.

Find “down” time. Whether it’s taking a bubble bath or exercising, make time to relax, re-energize and refresh your body and mind.

Enjoy time with your loved ones. When family or friends visit, don’t plan activities for every minute of the day. It is easy to get caught up in the fast pace of the holiday season; take time out to spend quality time with family and friends, just catching up and enjoying one another’s company.


Make travel plans early. Book airline flights and make reservations early to cut down on stress—and possibly save money.

Allow plenty of travel time. Given the heavy volume of travelers, expect delays. Arrive early to avoid long lines, overbooked reservations, and to cut down on stress.

Anticipate traffic jams. During the holidays, traffic volume is at its heaviest. Plan to carpool during the holidays to cut down on traffic, or bring along some music or books on CD to help pass the time.


Finding, buying and wrapping holiday gifts can add stress to your daily schedule and your finances. Here are some tips for alleviating the stress of holiday shopping:

Shop early. One of the greatest sources of holiday stress is last-minute shopping. Crowded malls, bumper-to-bumper traffic and packed parking lots can make shopping stressful. Create shopping lists before you go to the store, or try catalog or Internet shopping to save time and avoid crowds and long lines.

Be creative. The money spent on gifts during the holiday season can overwhelm both you and your budget. To cut down on expenses, organize a gift swap with family or friends; bake homemade cookies or candy; or make cards, gifts or crafts.

Wrap gifts as you buy them. Instead of waiting for the last minute to wrap and decorate your gifts, do a little bit at a time.

Write out holiday cards in advance. If you send holiday cards, start early or do a few each night to make it more manageable.

Mail presents and cards early. If you need to send gifts, mail them ahead of time to ensure they arrive on time.


In addition to staying organized, your best weapon for combating stress is maintaining healthy habits. Here are some suggestions for taking care of yourself during the holidays:

Get plenty of sleep. In trying to keep up with your hectic holiday schedule, it can be difficult to get enough sleep. Remember that getting enough rest will help you stay alert and have enough energy to do all of the activities you enjoy.

Eat well. Food is an integral part of every holiday tradition, but it is important to eat the foods you enjoy in moderation. Though you don’t have to skip holiday treats altogether, avoid overeating which may make you feel sluggish and full. If you know you’ll be attending a party in the evening, eat light for lunch.

Strive to be healthy. Stress can cause a multitude of physical symptoms, including tension headaches, backaches, migraines, muscle cramps, difficulty sleeping and eating, etc. To help combat these symptoms, be sure to drink plenty of water, avoid excessive alcohol and get enough exercise.


If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s okay to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season. Even though no one can take away your grief at these times, there are things you can do to make the holidays without your loved one less stressful.

Be honest about your feelings. Decide how much celebrating you can handle and what feels most comfortable for you. For example, will you really be able to handle the responsibility of the annual family dinner? Do your best to surround yourself with people who wish to support you and your needs.

Make changes if necessary. If you wish to continue the family traditions, do so; if you wish to make changes, that’s okay, too. Visit friends or relatives for a holiday or anniversary instead of hosting others; open presents on Christmas morning as opposed to Christmas Eve; vary the timing of Chanukah gift giving; etc.

Although the holiday season may look different this year for you, celebrate the wonderful things you have been blessed with and focus on how you can help someone else during this time. It might be a family member, a friend or a stranger that needs you this year. Be there for them and it might just lift your spirits.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Mary Ganzel is senior program director at the Albany Area YMCA. She has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky and has worked in the fitness industry for more than 25 years. She’s been certified through multiple national organizations over the years as a personal trainer, exercise test technologist, health promotion director, group exercise instructor, Cycle Reebok instructor and Pilates instructor through Cooper Institute, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, Aerobic Fitness Association of America and the Young Men’s Christian Association.