Use Books to Minimize Your Holiday Stress

As of the writing of this post, we’re heading into the holiday season.  For many it’s a joyful season.  For some of us, it’s a time loaded with extra stress. 

The stress of family interactions that aren’t always pleasant — often reminding us of unhappiness in our childhood.  It only takes a few minutes in the middle of a family gathering with Mom and Dad and Aunt Matilda and Brother Franklin for those childhood voices to start yelling loud and clear in the middle of our brain.  “You still wearing that same old coat?”  “So what are you doing with yourself these days?”  “Don’t cut the turkey that way.  Cut the turkey this way.” 

The stress of keeping up with the Joneses.  The holidays are the time of year when we often see people we haven’t seen for months.  A former colleague who left the company and took a new exciting job across the globe.  You’re standing in a room with a glass of wine listening to this person’s rendition of their great new life; while you’re still working at the same old desk.  You feel the stress to justify yourself maybe even ‘show off’.  It’s the stress of what the high performance sports psychologist, Michael Gervais brilliantly labelled — FOPO — Fear of Other People’s Opinion. 

The stress of extra social commitments and the spending of money — which you may not have.  Typically, the holiday season comes with lots of extra, high-voltage activities.  Parties — that aren’t always fun.  They can take time and energy and stress your resolve not to drink too much or eat gobs of junk food;  not to mention the stress of spending lots of money that’s often not in the monthly budget.   

The stress of reviewing the year that is passing and the goals you haven’t achieved.  It won’t matter that we achieved other goals — it’s the ones we set down on paper and didn’t achieve that seem to stand out.   You still haven’t written that book, run that marathon or lost those 10 pounds!  It’s easy to get stressed about all the things you ‘should’ have done but didn’t.

The stress of contemplating the coming year and the setting of new goals.  Those new goals that are supposed to energize us and inspire often just stress us out — and we’re often not even aware of the stress!  What should you try to achieve?  Is it big enough?  Will it be impressive enough?  How are you going to do that?  Then we begin stressing ourselves with self-talk:  Are you serious?   Really?  The latest news says the stock market is weak and the coming year will be a tough one for…(fill in the blank).  Is this really a good year to….(fill in the blank)?   Setting new goals can be as stressful as not achieving old goals.   

How can you cope?


Acknowledge the Stress.  Name it.  Plan for it.

There’s an old adage in the self-help space that says the mere naming of an emotion can help diminish its impact upon us.  Acknowledging that Uncle Herman is going to say something snarky can help diminish the impact his comments will have on your psyche.   It’s just Uncle Herman being Uncle Herman.  Don’t take it personally. 

Stick to your Exercise Routine — Even if Badly.

For me, exercise/movement is one of the most important self-care activities I do — especially when I’m in the middle of a stressful time.  It’s not always pretty and I often need to push myself to stick to my routine — especially on days when I’m feeling overwhelmed with other commitments.  But when I do exercise — even half heartedly — I feel better about myself, those around me and I’m able to better manage the crazy holiday season.

Do What You Can.  Breathe.  Let it Go

When I’m in a funk, I hate when people tell me to ‘let it go’.  But in fact, that’s often really great advice.  I may not want to hear it — but if I take it, eventually — I’m always glad.  Learning to take several big, deep, down in the belly breaths, holding it for a few seconds, then slowly letting my breathe go can often change my highly charged mindset.  Sounds crazy, but I’ve found it works.    

I can’t ever remember a situation where I’ve said to myself — ‘Damn it, I should have hung on to that negative, stressful thought a lot longer.”    

Use Your Books to Escape and Explore

When I was a kid, the holidays were always a challenging time.  I’d often escape with a favorite Nancy Drew Mystery.  Having a set of books on hand that I can dive into is still a useful way to pull myself out of a stressful mindset and recalibrate. 

I recommend pulling a stack together and placing them in a place of prominence in your living space — a place you’ll see them at the end of the day. 

And though you might not feel like it, make yourself grab one when you’re in a funk and see if reading doesn’t help reduce the stress. 

6 tips for using books to reframe and reduce your holiday stress. 


There are hundreds of books I could recommend but below are a few that you might consider to get you started.

1.  Escape into History or Biography Rather than Cookies and Cake.   

There are so many great history books available these days; not to mention the burgeoning genre of historical fiction.   I love reading about by-gone eras — especially over the holidays.  It’s the Dickensian in me.  If you’ve got a favorite period in history or personal hero, why not look for a biography or historical fiction to keep handy?  Here’s one of my favorites:


Ross King is what some literary snobs might disparagingly call a ‘popular writer’.  He typically takes ‘big episodes’ in the history of art and architecture and writes a compelling story with drama and personality.  I’m not smart enough to have this argument with an Oxford Don but I do know his books are a wealth of information and a boat load of fun to read. 


2.  Focus on Self-Development To Trim Your Holiday Season.

Most of us think of the new year as a time to focus on self-development.  For me, the holidays have always been a great time to pull back and focus on becoming a more evolved human.  It’s a time for self-reflection, an opportunity to slow down a bit and think about what you’d like to see in the future.  Here’s a recent U.S. release that I’m loving — it’s big but worth the read: 


Liz Scully ( first mentioned Derren Brown.  He’s a British illusionist whose been largely unknown in the U.S. until recently when his Netflix special, Sacrifice hit the airwaves and his books suddenly became readily available in the U.S.  Prior to this year, you had to order them from the U.K.  Happy is an investment at 500 pages but worth the time.  It will educate and increase your happiness quotient.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to take on 500 pages, here’s a podcast interview with Lewis Howes.


3.  Use Books to Build Your Empathy (for Ole Uncle Herman)

Several years ago, Michigan State University English Professor, Natalie Phillips, an 18th Century scholar began studying the effect of literature on the human brain — a burgeoning research niche called literary neuroscience.  Her work explores the impact that literature has on the human brain. Turns out, science shows that reading Jane Austen builds empathy.  I wrote about the research here.   I’m not going to recommend that you read Jane Austen — though that would be fine, too.  Instead let me recommend: 


This Pulitzer winning book is a bit dated but it’s a delightful romp through the raucous world of Ignatius J. Reilly.The story of its publication is also a tale all its own which you can read about here


4.  Dive into a Mystery or Adventure Tale Rather than a Contentious Conversation.   

There’s still nothing like a great mystery to take my mind off a challenging day.  Ever since my youth when I dove into a Nancy Drew, tales of the who-done-it have provided an escape from the stress and strain of a bad day.   A mystery masterpiece that still hold up is: 

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE  by Agatha Christie

Said to be the world’s best selling mystery, this novel has been adapted more than any other Christie for film, radio and stage.  In 2015 the BBC released a new version for their Christmas feast.  In this review for The Telegraph, Laura Thompson explains why this mystery is so compelling.


5.  Get Creative — Even if You Can’t Decorate or Wrap Gifts Artistically.

There are some fantastic books on creativity available — especially during the holiday season.  One of my favorite places to look for such books is at your favorite museum store.  These books aren’t what I would call literary but many of them are beautiful to hold, appealing visually and filled with golden nuggets of wisdom that remind you of what’s important in life.  One of my favorites (it’s also a great book to gift) is: 

THINK LIKE AN ARTIST  by Will Gompertz

Gompertz is the BBC Arts Editor and former director of Tate Media.  Not surprising he’s a charming bloke — take a look here on this short video. So is his book. 


6.  Read With Your Kids (or Your Partner) and Establish a Holiday Tradition.

I wish my parents had read to me.  It happened once or twice. It was a real treat.  When I was a pre-teen, it would have been even more awesome had my mom or dad asked me to pick a book that they would be willing to read then discuss with me.   I would have felt so grown up and respected!   Before the advent of radio and television (not to mention Netflix and video) families would often gather together to read — examples from Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott come to mind.   I’m not advocating reading together — but letting your pre-teen choose a book that you agree to read and discuss with them might be a great way to create a memorable holiday tradition.   

CORALINE (especially in audio) by Neil Gaiman

If you’re not ready to tackle Coraline, then have a listen to Gaiman during his iconic Make Good Art commencement speech in 2012 to the graduates of the University of the Arts


With these and so many others books to choose from, your holidays should be rip roaring fun! 

What books are you diving into to help manage the stress during this holiday season?  Let me know at

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