Tips for Dealing with Holiday Season Stress

Family gathered around the dinner table, raising their glasses in a toast. Stockings are hung on the fireplace behind them.

Thanksgiving just passed, and the holidays are rapidly approaching. 

In my couples counselling, I have worked with many individuals and couples who eagerly await the arrival of the holidays. But I’ve also worked with many who view the season with trepidation. Even if you’re a holiday super-fan who goes all in on decorating and preparing, there’s no denying the holiday season brings significant extra stress into our lives. 

A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that nearly two-thirds of people with mental illness reported that the holiday worsens their condition. 

Another study from the American Psychological Association discovered that nearly one-quarter of those surveyed felt extreme stress during the holiday season, and almost half would prefer to skip the holidays altogether! 

So, you’re not alone if you feel or experience extra anxiety or stress as the holiday season approaches. As with most things, understanding what’s going on and having some techniques to help minimize the effects goes a long way to helping you cope. 

What is causing all this extra stress?

As fun as the holidays can be for many, they have morphed over the years into a highly commercial time full of unrealistic expectations. The most commonly expressed holiday stressors are:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of enough money
  • Pressures to give/find the right gifts
  • Credit card debt
  • Travel

Many of these factors are due to the commercialization and hype surrounding the holiday season. During this season, we feel pressured to “be social,” find and purchase gifts, travel (or host travellers), and more. All of these factors place extra stress on our mental health. 

And we can’t overlook the stress that comes from our families. While many people enjoy the holiday season for the time they get to spend with their loved ones, others experience specific stressors caused by their families. For them, the holiday season is a time that amplifies or reignites old pains and traumas. 

You go from running your own life for most of the year to suddenly being inside the pressure cooker of family expectations. That’s on top of any family drama like recently broken relationships, new in-laws, old grudges, etc. 

Signs that you’re experiencing holiday stress

When any of these stressors are left unchecked, our lives can be negatively impacted. Left unchecked, this stress will eventually express itself in our lives. We can try to hide or fight it, but it will come out whether we want it to or not. 

Every person has their own unique ways of manifesting this stress. Still, it’s good to be aware of signs that you might be experiencing holiday stress. 

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Loss of pleasure in activities
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Increased anxiety
  • Being easily agitated or angered
  • Change in appetite

If you notice an uptick in any of these that always seems to happen around this time of year, you might have some holiday season stress that you need to deal with. If you’re already in individual or couples counselling, it’s worth bringing up these symptoms with your counsellor so that they can equip you with techniques to help manage during this stressful time. 

Tips for dealing with holiday season stress

Here are a few suggestions for reducing your holiday stress and finding more enjoyment from your holidays. 

Embrace imperfections

Some feel pressure for the holidays to be perfect. Maybe you’re a newer couple hosting your first family celebration or part of a larger family with long-held traditions and high expectations. Whatever the reasons for wanting the holidays to be “perfect,” it helps to understand that no event with other people involved will ever reach perfection. 

Think back to past holidays or times with your family and loved ones. Often, it’s the times when something silly happened or went off the script that make the best memories. Instead of striving for a Hallmark movie-worthy event, shift your focus onto enjoying what you do have. If something does go off-script, try rolling with it. A miscooked meal or family tussle doesn’t mean the holidays failed. Who knows, it might inspire a new favorite holiday memory, story, or even a new tradition. 

Be open to new/changing traditions

For most families, the holiday season is a time of long-held traditions. Some of these traditions do add beauty and a sense of family history to the seasons. But unfortunately, when we never stop to reconsider or rethink why we’re doing something, we can become hostages to the routine. Clinging tightly to these traditions can often add unnecessary stress to the season. 

Think of a super complicated holiday dish that requires multiple days to prepare but no one really enjoys. Yes, it’s nice to have this familiar dish on the table year after year, but could that time be better spent elsewhere? Or do you even have to cook at all? Would the entire family enjoy a meal out instead? Don’t be afraid to reconsider something if it’s not adding joy to your holiday season. If you’re feeling burdened by the pressure to maintain a tradition to the point that it impacts your enjoyment of the holidays, don’t be afraid to change it, drop it, or look for an alternative. 

Don’t forget “you” time

There’s so much to do over the holidays that many people put taking care of themselves on hold. There are gifts to find and buy, wrapping to get done, trips to prepare for, and more. How could you possibly have time to go to the gym, attend couples counselling, or take a nap? 

It’s an attractive trait to want to make the holidays unforgettable for everyone around you. But don’t spend so much time doing things for others that you can’t take care of yourself. Don’t forget to get out to the gym, go for a walk, or have your special night out. Amidst the holiday hustle, it’s crucial to carve out moments for self-care and relaxation. Consider indulging in online games like let it ride online real money at the Slotogate platform as a delightful way to unwind, effectively reducing the stress that often accompanies the holiday season. Allow yourself the joy of a virtual escape for a more balanced and enjoyable festive experience. All the little things you need throughout the year don’t go away because it’s the holiday season. 

Set boundaries

Similar to finding time for self-care, don’t feel like you’re a terrible family member for setting boundaries for yourself during the holidays. It’s lovely that many want to give to others during this season. But what’s the point of giving to the point of exhaustion, stress, or mental discomfort? 

This extends to everything you do during this time, from how much effort you put into different events to how much time you spend with others. Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot handle during the holidays, and set appropriate boundaries. If you know you’ll eventually fall into a long and drawn-out argument with an uncle after a few hours, keep your time around them shorter. Similarly, don’t take on so much that you overextend yourself and become stressed out to the point you can’t enjoy the celebrations like everyone else. 

Learn to share or delegate responsibilities

Another major source of stress during the holidays is taking on too much work or responsibilities. Oftentimes the burden either falls on, or is taken up by, one family member more than the others. This leads that person to feel an ever increasing amount of stress as the holiday season progresses. 

Instead, that family member can learn to delegate some of their tasks to other family members or friends. For example, if they are the ones who do all the shopping for Christmas, they can have other family members do more of the cleaning, tidying and cooking. Or, if they have friends or extended family coming over they can ask them to come over earlier to help out. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask others to help out. They are also enjoying the fruits of the work after all. This collective sharing of responsiblities is a common practice in many cultures, and it adds to the fun of being and celebrating together.

Seek support

Lastly, never think that feeling stressed or down during the holiday season is something you must keep to yourself. As we’ve said, many people experience stress, depression, and more throughout the holidays. Attempting to hold it in or hide your feelings for the sake of others will only exacerbate your feelings over time. 

Talk to supportive friends or family that you feel safe with. If you don’t feel like you have this support network, reach out to a trained individual or couples counsellor. Sometimes we simply need someone to listen and remind us we’re not alone. 

Find joy in the holiday season again

It’s worth stating again that the holiday season is supposed to be one of connection, remembrance, and celebration. The humble roots of all our holidays get more and more obscured every year as they get increasingly commercialized and glamorized through their depiction in film and TV. 

It’s great to strive for a holiday that everyone will remember. But it’s not worth internalizing levels of stress that drive a wedge in our families and personal relationships. If you’re feeling sad, stressed, or overwhelmed, please reach out to your support network. Also, please do not sacrifice your time at your individual or couples counselling session for something that will detract from your quality of life. It’s more vital than ever that you nurture and maintain yourself to share your best self with your families. 

If you need extra couples counselling or support during the holiday season, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or any other trained therapist. 

Maha Elias is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC), Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC), Comprehensive Family Mediator (FMC), and sexual health and trauma-informed couples therapist with a private counselling practice in Victoria, British Columbia.

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