Combat holiday stress with this brain hack

Keep Calm and Merry On

It’s common knowledge that the holidays can be stressful for lots of people. Some of the stress comes from feeling overwhelmed by the added projects, tasks, expenses and other obligations of the season.

Perhaps you’re overwhelmed balancing expectations of different family members. Or you’re frustrated trying to make everyone happy.

Another kind of stress comes from other people in the extra social interactions and gatherings.

Maybe you’re caught off guard by zingers from a supporter of the “other” political party. Or you’re stuck in conversation with the brother-in-law who criticizes everybody for something – and you for everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a simple approach to manage or deflect these troublesome situations?

Help and advice is on the way.

That’s it!

Ask for help. Ask for advice.

It’s simple, but maybe not easy. And before you dismiss this as a tired, useless suggestion, read on to find out what asking does to the brain that amplifies its effect. I call it a “brain hack.”

First, asking for help in order to deflect an unpleasant conversation:

Let’s say you just received a criticism or provocation about – anything.

You simply reply, “That’s interesting, but first I could use your help with…[fill in the blank]. Would you help me?”

It could be setting the table, stirring something on the stove  or cleaning something up. This is especially good if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Here’s why it works:  it’s a “brain hack.”  Most people like to feel needed, and the request shifts the critical person from the judgmental part of their brain to the supportive part of their brain.

Asking for advice is a helpful variation.

To the person who offered a criticism or provocation, simply say, “That’s interesting, but if I could shift topics for a minute, I would like to get your advice about…[insert your question here].”

The advice could be about anything from how to make gravy that isn’t lumpy or getting stains out of carpets to how they deal with leftovers. It could be any topic the person might have experience with.

Again, this approach hacks their brain and moves them from negativity to the region that requires thinking. And most people feel good about being asked for advice.

What about the stress from all the extra demands of the season?

This stress isn’t brought on by things other people say. Maybe you’re just at home feeling overwhelmed with all you have to do. Is there a family member or friend you could ask to help? And, be honest with yourself… can you take some things off your list?

I said it was simple but maybe not easy. It’s especially difficult for people who hate asking for help or advice.

It is true a lot of men don’t like asking for directions! (If the shoe fits, wear it.)

But if you’re motivated to reduce some stress this holiday, just say, “Would you help me for a minute?” or “Can I get some advice from you?” Chances are that you'll feel some instant relief.

By the way, would you help me with something? I’d appreciate reading any comments you’d like to share about experimenting with this approach. Feel free to comment below. Thanks!

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I had several gifts to order on Etsy that required customization, and I typically spend way too much time deciding on colors and other details… so I just asked the sellers for their opinions and saved a lot of time and brain bending! Plus the gifts turned out way better than if I’d decided. Simple advice to ask advice – but very helpful!


I remembered that my sister and I have the same parents and that she seems to have an easier time dealing with their somewhat stressful dynamics. Instead of keeping my thoughts and emotions about it to myself as I usually try to do, I simply asked my sister how she handles it and it opened the way for a very good, long needed conversation. Sometimes asking builds better connections and that can counteract feelings of loneliness and pain.

Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple. Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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