The holidays used to start somewhere after Thanksgiving in a subtle showing of gingerbread kits at the supermarket. Perhaps a candy cane display would appear somewhere around mid-November. Then Black Friday swarmed into existence, possibly willed into creation by the ghosts of cut-up credit cards. Now Christmas decorations and foodstuffs can be seen in supermarkets on the new unofficial start of the holiday season: 12:01 a.m., Nov. 1.

For many, the holidays are like a starter gun going off for a marathon that ends sometime after the new year. Between decorations, dinners and gift details, all the joy of the holiday season can seem as real as Santa Claus. But there are ways to navigate the season with sanity. Check out our list of eight smart ways to decompress during the holidays — and possibly have a little fun along the way.   

1. Get outside

This can be difficult for the part of the country that doesn’t include a winter of sunny skies and 65 degrees. But taking 10 minutes to walk around your block can do wonders for your stressed-out state. If you live in a southerly place, go out and work in your winter garden. If snow is a daily part of life, shovel the front walk. Bring the kids with you, or take the moment for yourself. Just the act of breathing fresh air will let you breathe a little easier.   

2. Take five seconds — and repeat

The next time you feel like your head is about to burst — take five seconds. Inhale. Then take five more seconds. Repeat. Focus on the positive. Five seconds. You can afford that once a day, right?

3. Step away from the surplus sugar

This can be difficult when you’re inundated with holiday parties or rushing to get errands done. But nothing is going to feed more stress than sugar, spice and everything unhealthy. Sure, indulge a little — it’s the holidays. Just proceed with caution. While binging on caffeine and sugar might help you through the day, the crash you experience will exhaust you even more. So meet stress head-on with a balanced breakfast and be sure to keep your mind clear with healthy meals throughout the day.

4. Turn down the thermostat

Your inclination might be to crank the heat during the holidays, but studies show that people are more relaxed when they are cool. And you will save yourself the stress of opening a jacked-up heating bill one month later.    

5. Exercise

This is not running down the aisle at Whole Foods Market for cheap nut loaf or wrestling a woman for possession of the last roll of recycled wrapping paper. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing stress, but we tend to ignore that when things get busy. Exercise can seriously release pent-up stress. It might seem difficult to fit in exercise in the midst of holiday mayhem, but a few moments of effort can make a difference when you feel like you’re going to lose it.

6. Make a list, check it twice

Holiday parties often cause forced interaction with relatives and friends who you have about as much in common with as polar bears to piranhas (other than they all bite). But there’s nothing wrong with letting your host know that you have another obligation that you simply can’t miss. An excuse to check out early is an excuse to preserve your sanity.

7. Keep it real

The biggest source of frustration over the holidays sometimes occurs with the expectation that there should be no frustrations. Don’t expect dinner to look like a “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Approach the holidays like a wedding — it’s great to have an interest in table settings, but in the end, it’s about the people surrounding you.

8. Sit in front of the holiday decorations.

Be it a Christmas tree, menorah or Kwanzaa candle holder — take a moment to enjoy the lighted decorations you toiled to put up. This can be a great excuse to take five — or 10. So sit down with cup of cocoa, turn on the holiday music, and actually relax for a few minutes in front of the lights. Who knows, you might just start to enjoy yourself — and the holidays!

For further reading: Study: Women are more sensitive to stress

MNN homepage photo: VectorFaces/iStockphoto 

8 ways to stay sane through the holidays
Tried and true techniques to keep our wits sharp during the stressful holiday march.