Does just thinking about Thanksgiving and the holiday season make your blood pressure spike? If you’re a woman, you may be more likely to answer that question with a resounding “yes,” according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
In a survey conducted from Nov. 9 to Nov. 13, using a nationally representative sample of 1,584 U.S. adults, Yahoo News/YouGov asked participants about the pressure they feel around Thanksgiving and gift-giving season. Compared to other times of the year, 43% of women and 32% of men said their level of stress and anxiety increases during the holidays. Men were more likely to say they weren’t impacted by all the holiday bustle, with 55% of men and 41% of women saying their stress and anxiety levels stayed the same during the holidays compared to other times of year. Meanwhile, 5% of women and 4% of men said their stress and anxiety levels decreased during the holidays.
What’s causing all the holiday stress?
For many American families, this time of year means presents to buy and wrap, dinners to cook and host and a seemingly endless stream of events to attend and prepare for — and much of the labor that goes into fulfilling those obligations and making the holiday magic happen falls on the shoulders of women.
“I know it's not in every relationship, but what research shows is women are consistently doing more work when it comes to family and the household. And that just escalates during the holidays,” Jenny Evans, a resiliency coach and consultant, tells Yahoo Life.
Pew research published earlier this year found that in marriages where men and women work equal hours outside the home, women spend more time on childcare and household chores while men spend more time on leisure activities; and even in marriages where wives are the breadwinners, women spend almost 3.5 hours more per week on caregiving and housework.
“Just having to do the tasks creates additional stress and anxiety, but also I think there is this cultural expectation around perfection and doing it all during this time of year that's probably not very realistic, but drives a lot of the stress,” Vaile Wright, the American Psychological Association's senior director of health care innovation and contributor to APA’s Stress in America report tells Yahoo Life.
Societal expectations around perfectionism and having an Instagram-worthy holiday setup can compound the stress women already feel — especially when moms tend to be the stewards of family traditions.
“We look back on our childhoods and we see holidays through one of two lenses — either the holidays were not good for us and so we want to make them better for our our families, or we see them through kind of rose-colored glasses of, 'Oh, that was perfect, and Mom always had it like this,'” Josh Briley, a psychologist and fellow of the American Institute of Stress tells Yahoo Life. “But we forget everything that mom went through.”
And it’s not just the literal act of wrapping presents or cooking dinner. Women also often bear more of the “mental load” in heterosexual relationships by doing many of the invisible tasks required to keep a household running, like planning ahead for events, anticipating needs and delegating chores. The holidays can compound this and add to the emotional toll women already experience.
“Women tend to have more responsibility for hosting social gatherings, as well as emotional nurturance in family relationships — and those tend to spike around the holidays, since the whole point is oftentimes about gatherings and visiting with extended family,” Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist and author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, tells Yahoo Life. “There's a lot of logistics as well as the emotional labor that occurs during the holidays, so it makes sense that women would be a little bit more stressed.”
But the biggest trigger for holiday stress? Both men and women were most likely to identify money as their primary source of anxiety, with 34% of women and 29% of men saying financial stress was the most stressful aspect of the holiday season; 13% of women and 9% of men said buying gifts was the most stressful part.
What can you do about it?
So how can you get a better handle on all that holiday stress? Here’s what stress experts suggest:
Identify your stressors. “The beauty of these holiday stressors is that they are predictable,” Carmichael says. “There tends to always be, maybe a certain uncle that always makes rude jokes or whatever. And as annoying as it is, the silver lining to it is that it's predictable, so it does allow us to have a plan in advance of how we're going to deal with it.”
Prioritize. Take a look at your family traditions and prioritize which ones actually bring the family together, and maybe let go of the ones that just create more stress without adding much to the celebration. “You don't have to hop on every trend,” Briley says. “It's okay for your kids to not have ‘Elf on the Shelf.’”
Learn to say “no.” Seemingly every group you’re a part of — from work to school to hobbies or religious organizations — may be throwing some kind of holiday party or event to participate in. But you don’t have to attend every one.
Get moving. “Stress is not something that just happens in our heads," Evans says. "It's actually a chemical, biological event." Fortunately, Evans says all it takes is a short “microburst” of 30 to 60 seconds of intense physical activity to produce endorphins and help your body reset. “Around the holidays — or anytime — external circumstances are outside of our control, but with our internal chemistry there's a lot that we can do to control that.”
Have a good laugh. “Laughter is a huge stress relief,” Briley says. “So find something funny. Listen to a comedian that you like, or put on a comedy that can be playing in the background and chuckle while you're doing your things.”
And try tackling financial stress with these expert tips:
Budget your resources — and your time. “Before the holidays even start, sit down and make a plan. How much do you have for gifts? How much do you have for food,” Briley says. “Also, budget your time. Do I really have time to bake five dozen homemade cookies for my kid's Christmas party, or can I go to a local bakery and pick some up?”
Have open conversations about money. “Having open conversations about financial limits on gifts can really take the pressure off of everyone,” Carmichael says. “The adults can all decide, ‘We're going to get gifts for the kids, but there's a $10 limit on gifts for adults.’ Or maybe you want to say, ‘We're going to do a ‘Secret Santa.’”
Ask for help. “If you're someone that is hosting and generally creates all the meals, can you outsource some of that,” Wright asks. “Can you ask others to bring dishes so that the entire financial strain isn't on one household?”
But most importantly, experts say, you should take time to appreciate what matters this holiday season.
“I think when we really ask ourselves what are our values and priorities during this time of year, it's not going to be commercialism or having an Instagram-worthy table,” Wright says. “I think it's about relationships, families and friends, and reconnecting to maybe our spiritual or faith side and reflecting on gratitude and blessings. So if those are true to your values, ensuring that you're engaging in activities that really align with those is going to be an important first step.”