URI psychologist offers tips for managing stress during holidays

Exercise, sleep important to keeping stress at bay

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 25, 2020 – The holiday season is upon us and with it comes chronic stress felt by many. This year, those worries are compounded by the record spread of COVID-19 infections and a divisive election that overshadows the season.

So, how do we manage our stress?

As there are public health recommendations for combating the spread of the coronavirus, there are equally helpful steps you can take to reduce your stress, says Mark Robbins, professor and chair of the University of Rhode Island Psychology Department.

“We have to double down on doing the things that we know are good stress reducers,” says Robbins, of Wakefield, Rhode Island. “But what happens is when we feel stressed, we tend not to follow through on those behaviors that are absolutely necessary for us to maintain mental and physical health. But now’s the time more than ever.”

While stress has its benefits, it’s only useful to a point. Then it’s time to find ways to relax. Tried-and-true methods to reduce stress include:

  • Physical activity. High- or low-level exercise, especially getting outside when the weather permits, helps take your mind off your troubles, helps you think more clearly, and sleep. “There are tons of data that support moving as much as possible. Yoga, exercise, anything that relaxes your body is good to help you fight off the effects of chronic stress,” Robbins says.
  • Data show that it’s best to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every day, regardless of weekends. “We underestimate the importance of sleep tremendously,” he adds. “It’s massively important for your body’s ability to improve your immune system and your capacity to manage negative aspects.”
  • Try to have fun – within reason. “That’s our challenge,” he says. “For the holidays, we want to gather with people, but we need to keep our gatherings small with people who are in our pod.”

That advice goes hand-in-hand with following public health guidelines for the pandemic – wear masks and physically distance in public, wash your hands, and keep holiday gatherings to a group of no more than five people.

“It doesn’t change because it’s the holidays,” Robbins says. “That’s what Anthony Fauci keeps saying – the virus doesn’t know it’s the holidays, it doesn’t care that you want to get together with your extended family. So, you have to figure out how do you reduce the risk as low as possible. The rest of the rules of stress management have not changed.”

Because of the lack of clear health guidance from the Trump administration and the politicization of the pandemic, it has been harder to get some groups to adhere to those basic health guidelines – even 10 months into a crisis that’s seen more than 250,000 dead and 12.5 million positive cases in the U.S.

Robbins, director of URI’s Health Behavior Change Lab and a clinical psychologist whose work includes behavior change and stress management, says the best methods to change a person’s resistance is to allow them to express their concerns but help them see how the recommended behavior is in their best interest.

“We’re at the stage when almost everybody knows somebody who’s been sick or who has died,” Robbins says. “The methods you use for a person who is resistant is not to press them, but to gently nudge them. There are many techniques – such as motivational interviewing – where the goal is to listen for people’s values and then feed that back to them and connect how the behavior matches their values.”