Holiday Coping: Take a Deep Breath

By Eleanor Harrison, PhD

holiday-ornaments-Brandee Ross-FIYes, take a deep breath. The holidays are fast approaching and many people find this time of year stressful. Whether it’s because you have the dreaded Christmas party coming, you are cooking the turkey this year, Aunt Marge will be in town for the holidays, or you are living alone and fear loneliness, the holidays can be very difficult. The advertisements don’t help for they portray loving families with loads of money and perfect homes. In the movies nobody’s family argues and, if they do, there is sure to be a happy ending. We can all become convinced that our family is the only family with problems. Even when we know this can’t be true.

brady-bunch-christmas-tvI grew up watching shows like the Brady Bunch, Eight is Enough, and Father Knows Best. I wanted parents that looked and acted just like those parents: friendly, pretty, young. I watched how the characters celebrated birthdays and holidays and always found my own family lacking. I didn’t have anyone who would tell me that these were fantasy families. Even now that I realize these were make-believe families, I still can fall into “the holidays must be perfect” trap. I can worry about getting the right gift, or creating the perfect holiday meal when no one else in my family cares.

This time of year, I have to remind myself: Take a deep breath. Take another deep breath. Otherwise, stress becomes just another unwelcome part of the holidays. Why breathing? Because studies have shown that when our nervous system becomes stressed, one of the ways our bodies respond is by taking shallower breaths. Hyperventilation often accompanies panic attacks. Stress can also make our muscles contract. Over time this can be exhausting for the body. One way to combat stress and to quiet the mind is by practicing relaxation and deep breathing. Controlling your breath helps the body and mind slow down.

Photo by mokra,

Deep breathing begins by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. The idea is to breathe slowly. As you breathe in, slowly count to three. As you breathe out, slowly count to five. Then do it again. You want to picture yourself breathing deeply as if it’s coming out of your gut rather than your chest. If it helps, slowly repeat a calming word or phrase, such as “relax” or “quiet” or “calm.” Finally, some people use imagery to help their breathing. Picture a relaxing place, a beach, a mountain, your room, whatever you find relaxing. Practice deep breathing and it will become a useful habit.

As the holidays approach, use your deep breathing to help quiet your mind and reduce your stress. Pretty soon you will find yourself in the new year wondering how it all went by so easily.


Eleanor Harrison, PhD

Eleanor Harrison, PhD


Eleanor Harrison is a psychologist at The Labyrinth Institute specializing in therapy and assessment for children and teens. You can reach her at 303-514-9780 or