It's as predictable as plastic reindeer, spinning dreidels, family visits, and overspending on gifts: holiday anxiety. And we shouldn't take it lightly. According to a paper published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the effects of psychological stress can weaken immune function and trigger inflammation, raising the risk of autoimmune disease, coronary artery disease, and depression.
We asked three stress experts what they've learned from their research and how they apply these skills to their own periods of seasonal pressure.
First, practice listening (Burns calls it the disarming technique): "Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it seems unreasonable or unfair. Then empathize by putting yourself in her [or his] shoes and see the world from her perspective." Part of being empathetic is to act as a mirror, paraphrasing her words and acknowledging how she's probably feeling.
"Third, ask gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling. Those are the three listening skills."
Now you're ready to begin communicating back. The fourth step is to use "I feel" statements, such as "I feel upset," rather than "You" statements, such as "You're wrong!" Stroking statements come last. "Stroking means treating the other person with respect even if you're angry and they're angry. Always do it in a way that the other person won't feel put down or lose face."
The most damaging form of stress comes from situations in which you feel powerless, Blackburn says, such as caring for a chronically ill child or aging parent. But for anyone stuck in a difficult situation, Blackburn believes in focusing instead on sources of stress that are controllable: "Put a financial plan in place, for example," she advises. In tense times, Blackburn tries to find the things she can change and manages those. "Simply exercising regularly pays back dividends because when you feel healthy," she says, "you feel more in control."