Are you feeling stressed, sad, anxious, depressed, worried, overwhelmed, or angry about the upcoming holidays? You are far from alone. Although the holidays can be a time of joy and happiness, for many people they bring up painful emotions.
In a 2021 poll that was conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, 41% of U.S. adult respondents said that their stress levels go up during the holidays. The top sources of stress that were reported were:
- Missing family members who are unable to be present or had passed away
- Feeling socially uncomfortable
- Seeing family members that are difficult or disliked
- Not being able to afford gifts/financial worries
- Not enough time to get everything done/not enough sleep
- Being alone
- Not being free to be yourself around family members
- Difficulty getting enough time off work
- Being around those who are drinking alcohol
- Having too much alcohol to drink
While there is no cure-all for holiday stress, having a solid strategy in place before the holiday season begins can help. Here are some suggestions from our team of licensed clinicians on how to reduce your stress this season.
1. Take Stock of Your Current Situation
Before jumping into a frantic holiday schedule of parties, gatherings, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, sending cards, and more, take stock. Consider the following:
- How is my physical health this year? How is the physical health of my family members?
- How are my energy levels this year? How are my family members’ energy levels?
- How is my mental health this year? Have I already been struggling with painful emotions or circumstances before the holidays? What about my family members?
- What is my and my family’s realistic financial situation?
- What is my and my family’s realistic work/vacation situation?
It is important to consider these questions from the standpoint of how you actually are this year, not how you wish you could be, or how you were last year or at some time in the past.
2. Set Priorities
Next, make a list of all the things you wish you could do this holiday season. This can include decorating, shopping for gifts, buying holiday food, wrapping, baking, cooking, cleaning, attending parties and gatherings, sending cards, religious celebrations, volunteering, travel, and other family traditions. Compare the list with your current realistic situation that you determined when you took stock. Some years, you might have the energy and resources to complete everything on the list. Other years, you may not.
For each item on your list, consider if it is such a high priority that it must be done as it always has been done. If so, put it high on your list. Otherwise, consider if you can tone it down to something easier to manage. This may look like sending cards without handwriting anything on them; baking only a third of the cookies you usually do; or skipping a few holiday parties you don’t really love going to. You may find that some items on the list may be eliminated entirely.
Strive to match your current life situation to your priority list. Setting realistic priorities is much better than allowing unrealistic expectations for yourself to take over. Unrealistic expectations easily lead to burnout, anger, fights with family members, poor mental health, unhealthy coping mechanisms, overeating and drinking, or financial problems.
It is completely okay to say “no” to extra obligations and expectations, and it will actually do you and your family a favor by allowing you to be more fully present and less reactive and stressed.
3. Prioritize Your Mental Health
It is good to set boundaries with family, friends, work and your community in order to protect your mental health and that of your closest loved ones. If visiting a certain family member always results in you participating in unhealthy behaviors, it is okay to calmly explain that you cannot visit this year, or you will be limiting the number of hours/days you are visiting. If going to a gathering results in grief and pain for you because a loved one has passed, it is okay not to go or to limit how long you stay. If a gathering with family becomes conflicted or angry and you would like to leave the room, it is okay to explain that you aren’t feeling well and need a break outside for fresh air, or even to leave the gathering entirely.
It is okay to say no.
4. Remember What You Can Control and What You Can’t
You can only control you. This means you can control your actions, your words, your behaviors, the level of support you seek out, the coping skills you choose to use, and whom you choose to associate with. However, there are many more things you cannot control. These include your emotions, other people’s emotions, other people’s actions and words, and other people’s reactions. Other things that are out of your control include weather, travel delays, snafus with schedules or planning, the type of gifts others buy or receive, and other situational details. Trying to control what is not controllable is a recipe for your stress, anxiety, depression, overwhelm, or anger to skyrocket.
5. Take Care of Your Body
The mind and body are inseparable. If your body is run-down, malnourished, or exhausted, your emotions will feel more painful and overwhelming than usual.
Do your best to eat regular, healthy meals. Avoid falling into the trap of skipping food all day to “save up” for a big party. This puts the body into panic-mode due to starvation. Wild variations in blood sugar can cause your emotions to feel more difficult to manage, and you are likely to react in ways that you do not like. Instead, eat smaller, healthy meals earlier in the day that will still leave room for you to enjoy treats in moderation at the party.
Stick as much as possible to a normal sleep schedule. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep every night can lead to depression, anxiety, and anger; increased risk of car accidents; weight gain; brain fog; and numerous health problems.
Drink alcohol in moderation, particularly if you know that your family dynamics are negatively impacted when you or other family members drink. You cannot control how much other people drink, but you can control your own consumption level.
6. Use Healthy Coping Skills
When stress levels rise, try to use healthy coping skills to manage your difficult emotions. Some of these may include:
- Meditation or prayer
- Going for walks
- Working out
- Talking to a close friend or family member about your feelings
- Creating art
- Listening to music
- Punching a pillow
- Writing a letter to someone who has upset you and then shredding i
7. Reach Out for Support
Many people find that they would like to have extra support for their mental health during the holidays. This is especially true for those who have already been experiencing anxiety, depression, anger, or grief throughout the year. A therapist can help you gain perspective as you decide on your priorities and work with you to learn healthy coping skills for stress. Working with a therapist for support can also help you effectively set boundaries, improve communication with your family and friends, and process and cope with difficult circumstances.
Here at the Rollins Counseling Center, our clinicians are trained to provide evidence-based psychotherapy to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, anger, and overwhelm that may arise or worsen during the holiday season. Please reach out today and take the first step toward feeling more centered and at ease this holiday season, and beyond!
References and Further Reading
- American Psychiatric Association (2021). Holiday Stress.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine (2022). The Effects of Sleep Deprivation.
- Kay, Isa (2019). Is Your Mood Disorder a Symptom of Unstable Blood Sugar? University of Michigan School of Public Health.