Your Brain On Holiday

(self) Worth

It's the most wonderful (and totally crazy!) time of the year. Here's how to maximize the joy—and tame the stress.

Above Image | Hannah Whitaker

There are so many things to love about the holidays: delicious meals, gift giving, and a chance to spend time with the people who matter most. But amid all that once-a-year fun, we also tend to build up expectations, worry about others', and, basically, put our brains in overdrive. “There's a lot of pressure for holidays to be special, which can make the time less relaxing,” says Clay Routledge, Ph.D., professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “You could be more prone to think about what can go wrong.” The best way to keep a cool head is to plan ahead, he says. Try these tips to enjoy the season that much more.


Whether you're traveling cross-country or just taking an hour to get together with friends, holiday celebrations can seem to fly by—and that time-is-running-out feeling can be a major stressor. But, says Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at James Madison University, “the anticipation can be some of the biggest joy.” Embrace good vibes ahead of time just by thinking about those delicious family recipes, that snowy walk, or the toast you'll give at a party.


Gatherings are ripe with opportunities to compare your career, relationships, and personal accomplishments with others', Kurtz says. On your way to a get-together, “focus on something in your life right now that you feel good about,” she says. “Have something ready to share, and own it.” For example, “I just finished a big work project I'm really proud of.” It's not about one-upping those around you, she says, “but realizing that you have something to celebrate, too.”


It can be a great time of year to connect with family and old friends, but being around the people who knew you as a kid also makes it easy to revert to childhood ways (cue the eye rolling at Dad). If you have the urge to react to a situation like your adolescent self would, stay grounded by doing something you wouldn't have done back then, suggests Kurtz. “If you and your mom always make cookies but she usually gives the instructions, try offering your own recipe and taking the lead,” she says.