It’s not news that the holiday season can be very stressful. We add expectations for perfect Norman Rockwell family holidays onto our already demanding schedule. We over-extend our budgets as we are influenced by advertisements promising happiness if we just snatch up that 70-inch LED TV on sale. At work, we expect ourselves to bring home-made treats and find the perfect little gifts for folks we may not feel close to. The list goes on.

Why am I talking about stress in a column on conflict resolution?

Stress greatly increases the chance for misunderstandings, so it affects our ability to get along. When we’re stressed, we do and say things that we will often later regret, when we’re calm. We’re also more likely to be offended by things others say to us, things we’d just let roll off our backs during more relaxed times.

Stress and conflict can cause an unpleasant cycle – as we snap out at those around us, it increases conflict, which increases our level of stress. The pattern can continue to spiral, with conflict increasing stress and stress exacerbating conflict. So getting along requires that we manage our stress level.

Before we can address stress, we must become aware of it. Indeed, one cue that we’re getting ahead of ourselves may be that we’re being snippy with family, friends, or co-workers. We discover that our neck and shoulders are tense, maybe our whole bodies. We want to chuck our to-do lists and retreat to a warm beach somewhere far away.

A growing body of research indicates that we are physically unable to access the full range of our higher brain function when we are under stress – our brains are too busy trying to decide whether to fight, flee, or freeze in response to the perceived threat to our survival. The part of our brains that kicks-in when we’re under pressure doesn’t distinguish between seeing a crouching tiger and contemplating how we’re going to prepare the big presentation at work, as well as get all the presents purchased and wrapped before Christmas.

One of the most effective and simple things you can do when you realize you’re tense is to take a nice, deep breath. Let your belly expand as the air comes in, and pause for just a moment before you exhale. Take another “belly breath”. And another. Feel how your shoulders drop and the tangle of your thoughts clears a bit.

Now that you have enough oxygen in your system, and your body is relaxing, you can begin to make new choices about how to approach your schedule: Do you still want to make homemade fudge for the holiday party at work, or could you pick-up a couple dozen brownies at the store? Do you have to put that new toy together before Christmas, or could you gather the tools and leave time on Christmas day to enjoy putting it together with your kids? Scale back your expectations for how much you will do and how it will turn out.

May your holidays be wonderfully low-stress and enjoyable!