It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as wonderful as a time can be in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is still in full swing in the United States and Europe. It’s been a stressful enough year (without the added holiday stress of normal years). We’ve had to worry about the health of vulnerable family members and the added pressures of working and studying from home.

But we did it! We’re almost at the end. People are getting the vaccine already, and many places are returning to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Nevertheless, for many women, there remains one big hurdle. One that won’t go away after the pandemic is over. One that happens year after year: the holiday season.

According to the American Psychological Association, women face disproportionately high stress levels throughout the year, and the holidays only add to this stress. Women may feel that they need to plan for gatherings, cook for the whole family, shop for gifts, and create memorable experiences for their children. This emotional labor makes it difficult to relax, and holiday stress can quickly become a problem.

What is emotional labor?

Emotional labor is the “unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy.” It’s a lot more intense during the holidays when you have to keep everything magical. The focus on gift-giving and relationships obscures the work that goes on behind the scenes to make everything perfect.

Mothers exert emotional labor the most during these winter months. After all, their children are home for break. If they’re young, there’s more pressure to sneak the gifts under the tree without their noticing. If extended family is coming over, that’s more people to cook for. Especially in front of older family members, there is pressure to put on a fifties-style display of homemaking magic.

Of course, this is not to say that we don’t enjoy making the holidays a wonderful experience for our loved ones. Nonetheless, making everything magical can take a toll on us. We may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, affecting our relationships with food or alcohol. In a pandemic, when it’s important to keep ourselves as healthy as possible, holiday stress can be especially harmful.

What are some of the harmful effects of stress?

There are the commonly mentioned effects that can apply to anyone. This includes hair loss, hypertension, changes in appetite, sleep problems, and irritability.

However, stress can affect women in other ways. High levels of stress can affect menstrual health, causing shortened menstrual cycles, heavier bleeding, and more severe PMS symptoms. Vaginal health can also be affected, increasing the risk of yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. Stress can trigger flare-ups of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is more common in women, as well. This is not to mention decreased sex drive and fertility.

What can you do to keep the holiday stress away?

You don’t need to wait for any of the previously mentioned conditions to strike before seeking help. Reach out. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner, parents, siblings, or friends for some help. Don’t feel pressured to take on every single task; delegate some tasks to others.

Replace ‘should’s with ‘could’s. Who says you should decorate your house, or invite all those people over? Give yourself options instead of letting yourself be guided by antiquated norms. You could decorate your house and invite the whole family, or you could have a lowkey celebration with a small group of friends and watch a movie.

Moreover, not everything has to be perfect. Focus on the experiences of joy and connection, not how picturesque your dinner table looks. A relaxed host makes for relaxed guests, too.

Finally, don’t forget to spoil yourself. Keep your rituals and hobbies intact, and engage in activities that reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, reading, or bonding with your pets.

Remember, there are dozens of holiday seasons you will get to experience, but there is only one you. Make sure you treat yourself this holiday season and don’t forget to celebrate when it’s all over. You made it through this train wreck of a year, and that alone is worth celebrating!

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