‘Tis the Season
How do you feel when you hear the phrase, “holiday season”? Are you filled with feelings of gratitude, excitement, happiness, and joy? Or does your heart rate skyrocket as you start to feel overwhelmed by everything that lies ahead?
If you find yourself feeling stressed, anxious, or worried every time the holiday season (the time between Thanksgiving and the new year) is mentioned, know that your feelings are valid.
In a recent survey, while most adults expressed experiencing positive emotions, related to the holidays, about 1/5 mentioned feeling stressed, anxious, sad, or depressed (American Psychological Association, 2021). In the same survey:
- 38% of adults reported feeling worried about spreading COVID-19, while 39% said they were worried about contracting it;
- 41% of adults indicated that their level of stress increases during the holidays; and,
- 32% of adults reported feeling anxious about being socially uncomfortable.
These numbers show that experiencing unpleasant feelings during the holiday season is not as uncommon as you previously may have thought. But by building an understanding as to why you personally find the holidays to be challenging, and implementing strategies to cope better with difficult feelings and situations, you can begin to navigate this time of year better, now and in the future!
Why Do I Feel This Way?
There are many reasons why you may feel stressed, worried, anxious, sad, or even depressed during the holiday season. The first step is to acknowledge your feelings and understand which holiday triggers may apply to you. Here are some common reasons people experience unpleasant emotions during the holiday season.
Sometimes, expectations are self-imposed, but they also can be placed upon you by others. During the holiday season, you may feel like you have to say “yes” to attending every event, getting your cousin that new expensive laptop they requested, and so on. These feelings are usually driven by a desire to please those around you and to prevent feelings of guilt. But by trying to meet everyone’s expectations of you, you add more stress to your plate.
You may feel like you have to spend a certain amount on gifts for them to be meaningful to others, or that you have to get everyone in your life (friends, family, peers, coworkers, bosses, etc.) a gift. In this time of inflation, particularly, it can be challenging to figure out a reasonable gift budget. In fact, about 46% of adults are worried about being able to afford holiday gifts (American Psychological Association, 2021).
Additionally, if you have to travel, or are in charge of making several dishes for a holiday dinner, you may be concerned about how you will afford to do those things. Worrying about finances, during this time, can lead to feelings of anxiety over being able to provide adequately for yourself and others.
While family can be a great source of joy, it also can be a source of stress. During the holiday season, you may ask yourself questions like, “How am I going to feel about my favorite uncle not being at the table this year?”, or “What if my brother and aunt Sallie get into another political argument and ruin the night?”
Alternatively, you may feel sad about not having family to celebrate the holidays with you. Dysfunctional family dynamics can be extremely hard to navigate, especially given that, even with the perfect amount of preparation, there’s no guarantee that they won’t interfere with your sense of peace and happiness during the holidays.
Aside from family obligations during the holiday season, social commitments also can present a drain to your time and energy. You may have friends who don’t have family in town, and you feel that they must be included in all your holiday activities. Or you have friends who insist that you attend their holiday potluck every year. At work or school, you may dread attending annual holiday parties, as you feel awkward around your coworkers or peers, and you worry about saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
You weighed your carry-on ahead of time, to make sure that you’ll be able to bring it on the plane, and you made sure that you got to the airport in plenty of time. But at the airport, your carry on is reading as one pound too heavy and an announcement is made that your plane is delayed by 3 hours. Let’s face it, traveling, even during the non-holiday season, can be a nightmare. The anticipatory stress of what may go wrong, coupled with the things that actually go wrong, can bring about feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, and agitation.
Recognizing the reasons that may cause you to experience negative emotions during the holidays will help to set you on a path toward effectively managing them, in order to improve and sustain your physical and mental health!
5 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress
If you are struggling with maintaining your overall sense of wellbeing during the holidays, know that you are not alone. While being merry and bright 24/7 may not be realistic for any of us, there are some effective strategies that you can use to stay emotionally balanced and maintain your wellbeing, during the holidays. Consider the following strategies to get started.
1. Set Social Boundaries
While you may feel the need to be physically present for everyone, over the holidays, it’s not realistic or healthy. Think about what type of boundaries you are comfortable setting with others, in order to maximize your quality time with those who are the most important to you. It’s okay to say “No,” or “Let’s do that in January,” if you are feeling overwhelmed by social obligations. Keep a calendar to track your social events, and if you are in a household with multiple individuals, ensure that everyone is on the same page as you when it comes to your social commitments.
2. Set Budget Boundaries
Whether it’s gifts, travel, or the cost of food, holiday spending can add up quickly. Develop a budget list and keep it updated throughout the holiday season. If an item costs more than expected, be sure to recalculate the cost of another item, or eliminate something from the list, to keep the budgeted balance in check. And when it comes to gift giving, remember, it’s the thought that counts! Instead of spending money on expensive technology or clothing for others, you may consider giving the gift of baked goods, or creating something meaningful for a loved one, based on a special memory or experience that you shared with them.
3. Prioritize Your Physical and Mental Health
Stress, during the holiday season, can take a tool on your mind, body, and spirit, leading to increased irritability, lack of sleep, rumination (a cycle of negative thinking), emotional eating, or even substance use. Be sure to check in with yourself and your personal needs throughout the season. You may consider making time, regularly, to move your body, eat healthy meals, and engage in relaxing or otherwise enjoyable activities (e.g., taking a bath, reading a book, sipping tea by a fireplace, etc.), to maintain your sense of wellbeing.
4. Ask for Support
While it can be tempting to try to navigate all the challenges you’re facing alone, know that it’s okay to ask for help, as needed. This could include asking a trusted loved one to help you decorate your living space for a holiday party you’re hosting, or simply asking a friend to lend an empathetic ear, as you vent about your holiday woes. If you find that your holiday stress is morphing into persistent anxiety or becoming overwhelming to the point that it’s preventing you from completing routine tasks, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
5. Find Moments of Joy
Amidst all the holiday chaos, try to find moments of happiness. For example, take time to fully savor that first bite of dessert at dinner, bask in the comfort of your warm and decorated environment, observe fun interactions that are happening around you, and so on. Being present, in the moment, during such moments, can help to increase feelings of gratitude and joy.
During the holiday season, try to show yourself some self-compassion. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and that caring for your wellbeing takes precedence over everything else. And who knows? Once you catch yourself keeping it together and getting that holiday stress in check, you actually could end up spreading some holiday cheer!
American Psychiatric Association. (2021). Holiday stress. https://www.psychiatry.org/File%20Library/Unassigned/APA_Holiday-Stress_PPT-REPORT_November-2021_update.pdf
Burley, E. (2022, November 1). ‘Tis the season for holiday stress and anxiety. Therapist.com. https://therapist.com/stress/holiday-stress-anxiety/
Seo, H., Pearson, C., Smith, D., Blum, D., & Gupta, A. (2022, December 7). How to actually enjoy the holidays. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/12/07/well/mind/holiday-stress.html
Tomasek, M. (2022, November 16). How much are Americans spending this holiday season? Alliant. https://www.alliantcreditunion.org/money-mentor/how-much-are-americans-spending-this-holiday season#:~:text=Let’s%20take%20a%20look%20at,between%20%24942.6%20and%20%24960.4%20billion