Leadership

Stanford psychologist gives 4 science-backed ways to beat stress and stay happy over the holidays

While many people look forward to the time away from work for celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas, spending that time with relatives can put a damper on the holiday spirit.

But, according to Stanford psychologist and science director of Stanford's Center For Compassion and Altruism Research Emma Seppälä, there are ways to beat the holiday blues.

"For some people, holidays are stressful, either because they are lonely, or they are financially burdensome, or because spending time with relatives is not an easy experience," Seppälä tells CNBC Make It.

When you find yourself in those moments, your increased feelings of stress and anxiety activate the sympathetic "fight or flight" response, Seppälä explains. This may be the reason why some people tend to "flee" (metaphorically) into over-consumption of alcohol or food, or even literally start a fight with relatives, she adds.

Tension can be exhausting, Seppälä says.

"Holidays — traditionally a time of companionship — can be stressful. Ironically, stress reduces our ability to really connect with others empathically," she says. "As a consequence, we may be with other people, but not really forming any meaningful connections. You might still feel lonely in a crowd, or irritable or even sad."

Seppälä points out that as people and families are living farther apart than ever before, viewing the holidays as opportunities to get together with family and friends can allow you to strengthen those personal ties.

"Social connection and love release hormones like oxytocin in our body, making us feel more bonded to people, more trusting and more relaxed and happy," she says.

While it may not be easy to push your differences aside, especially if your family or friend gatherings feel mandatory, there are ways to be in control of your own emotional experience.

Here are four science-backed tips that Seppälä recommends to beat your stress:

Be honest about what's happening

In her book, "The Happiness Track," Seppälä acknowledged that stress levels in the United States are alarmingly high and over half of Americans say their stress is only increasing.

When you start to feel stress bubbling up inside you, Seppälä recommends calming down by recognizing and naming your stress and then taking a deep breath.

"Research shows that just labeling how we feel decreases the feeling," Seppälä says. "So just acknowledging your emotions to yourself or someone else can start to calm things down."

If you aren't able to speak to someone about your emotions, journaling and writing about them can do the trick, too.

Seppälä also says that "breathing is powerful."

"You can lower your heart rate and blood pressure quickly by breathing more deeply and by slowing down your exhales. You'll see the effect right away," she says.

Remember what you're grateful for

"When we're stressed we focus on everything that's going wrong, forgetting all the positive things that have happened that day like you had a great lunch or talked to a friend," Seppälä says.

But research shows three times more positive things than negative things actually happen to us every day.

Remembering those positive moments and bringing to mind things you feel good about boosts your happiness, relationships and health, and, in turn, decreases your stress.

"Recalling all of the ways in which you are lucky and all of the things you have will help remind you of the abundance in your life," Seppälä says.

Unplug

"Many people think of exercising portion control over the holidays. What we forget, however, is to exercise mobile device control," Seppälä says.

She points to research which shows that, when you take time to truly take in your positive experiences, your happiness increases much more.

"Whether you're getting together with family and friends or chilling on the sofa with your cat, completely savor the moments instead of focusing on your smartphones or looking for your selfie stick so you can post to Instagram or Facebook," she says.

"When you are constantly checking your devices, you lose the moment and break the experience," she says. "You're thinking of making the perfect smile for the camera, but ironically you've stopped being fully present with the thing that made you smile so authentically in the first place."

Focus on others rather than yourself

Holidays mark a time when you see family members or friends you might not have seen in some time who may have a tendency to make insensitive comments. This is when you should actually keep in mind, "It's not me, it's you."

"When we're feeling anxious, we're more likely to be thinking about me, myself and I. As a consequence, we don't see from other people's perspective and don't connect as well," Seppälä says. "So the secret is to focus on others: Ask them how they are today, focus on what you can do for them."

You might have to swallow your pride but, Seppälä points out, "your relationship and communication will benefit and you'll feel better too" because compassion reduces stress and increases happiness.

Seppälä recommends that whether you are listening to an old aunt tell the same story over again, cleaning dishes or ladling hot meals to serve to the needy, her research shows you will not only be happier but also healthier.

"Serving and helping others gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. And truly, what do those around you really want? They probably care less about gifts than about your love. You'll leave the festivities energized rather than worn out and everyone will be happier for it," she says.

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