As we hear through both traditional and social media along with the messaging we receive from the entertainment industry and our friends and our families, the holiday season can be “the most wonderful time of the year” … for some of us. For others, however, the holiday season can prove to be a very difficult time. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 38% of people said their stress level increases during the holidays. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 64% of people with diagnosed mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse. The holidays can be demanding for many reasons, but if you're prone to anxiety, they can be very overwhelming. The gifts, the parties, the baking, the social situations, the travel, the family—or maybe the absence of these things—can make the season stressful.
The American Psychological Association reports that more women than men are responsible for the holiday shopping and planning, and they experience an increase in stress levels from the limited time available to get everything done. Approximately 44 percent of women and 33 percent of men surveyed by the APA are feeling stress during the holidays. Common triggers for feeling stressed or overwhelmed include family gatherings that devolve into arguments, overspending that adds to financial problems, and pressure to create festive homes and gatherings. A study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness showed that 64 percent of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse. Additionally, changes in weather, season, and daytime sunlight hours can affect your habits as well as your mood. Longer periods of darkness and cooler temperatures lead to more time spent indoors, which lowers the vitamin D levels the sun naturally provides. And low vitamin D levels can disrupt your mood and make holiday stress more difficult to manage. As the days get shorter, our moods and energy levels can be seriously affected, which can impact our everyday lives and the way we interact with others.
Common Holiday Stressors and Tips for Managing Them1. Family and Social Pressures
Family visits and holiday parties are a common source of seasonal anxiety. From planning and hosting events to a packed social calendar, too much activity may cause you to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season. Holiday events can be tough for those who feel obligated or pressured to spend time with relatives they don’t get along with well.
Plan ahead for holiday parties and family visits to help you prepare for the event and manage or eliminate stress. It is also important that you build in some time to recover after the event. If you know a family visit or social event will trigger anxiety, plan to do something relaxing right afterward—such as going home and reading a good book. Avoid packing too many visits and social events into your schedule without allowing yourself any downtime.
Setting boundaries will help to protect your time, energy, mental health, physical health, home, finances, and relationships. For example, feel free to politely decline a holiday invitation if you need some time alone, or talk with your family in advance about setting an affordable budget for gifts.
Prioritize self-care and schedule time for yourself. This will benefit you in the long run, even if it’s just a few minutes every day. Do some stretches, go for a walk, write in a journal, call a friend, rest your head, have a snack—these are all simple but powerful things you can do to take care of yourself.
2. Financial Worries
We are bombarded with advertising displaying holiday tables overflowing with food and gifts piled under beautifully decorated trees. It is easy to overspend in an attempt to reach these holiday expectations. Findings from a recent National Retail Federation report indicate strong spending levels during the 2022 holiday season, regardless of inflation. Holiday retail sales are predicted to grow by 6–8% this year over last year’s spending. Overspending and adding to debt during the holidays can lead to financial stress, which can impact your mental and physical health.
Set a budget and stick to it. Talk with your children about their wish list and set reasonable expectations that will work for your family.
Consider meaningful alternatives rather than fulfilling your entire holiday gift list by purchasing commercial gifts such as handmade gifts, special experiences like a home baking event, or a membership to the local zoo or museum.
Keep an eye out throughout the year for sales not only to get a deal, but also to help spread the expense out over the year rather than being hit with it all at one time.
3. Maintaining Diet and Exercise Routines
Gaining a few extra pounds may be a seasonal rite of passage for some, but it can be a significant source of stress for anyone who is trying to lose or maintain their weight. People who find it challenging to make healthy choices with eating and drinking might feel anxious about the parade of holiday parties, wondering how they can resist temptation or how they might be judged for their behavior. Maintaining a healthy routine during the holidays can provide you with consistency during a time that can feel overwhelming and disorganized. Sticking to your plan can also help keep your mood stable and your immune system strong, which can help you more effectively manage stressful situations. It can also help keep other health conditions in check.
Stay on track no matter what’s cooking. Avoiding weight gain during the holidays isn’t easy, but with some effort you can be successful at maintaining your weight and feeling good about it!
Allow yourself to indulge a bit but stick to smaller portions and balance out the treats with healthier options like whole grains, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. Choose fresh fruit over sugary desserts, limit fats, and enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation.
Getting outside for at least 20 minutes, ideally early in the day, and every day, can boost your mood. For an added benefit for your mental and physical health, consider going on a casual or brisk walk to get your blood pumping and body moving.
Minimize alcohol since it’s a depressant and can leave you feeling worse after those initial good feelings wear off. If you have a hard time regulating your alcohol intake, commit to self-discipline and consider asking a trusted friend or family member to help you stick to your limit.
Not everyone has close friends and family to spend their time with during the holiday season and some people struggle with having time alone at a time where all of the messaging is about together time with loved ones. The holidays can trigger feelings of loneliness in people with physical or emotional distance in their relationships and can be especially hard for people who’ve lost loved ones or gone through a breakup recently.
Seek out time with people on your own terms. This is one of the best ways to cope with holiday loneliness. Don’t forget to take breaks or limit interactions in order to ensure good self-care practices.
Look for volunteer opportunities, allowing you to make a positive impact while also socializing without all of the pressure.
Accept invitations from friends and coworkers even if they are people you don’t usually spend time with. This will help you feel less isolated and you never know what can inspire a new meaningful friendship.
Stay off social media, which is filled with embellished highlights from others that, many times, are not even real. It can cause an unrealistic expectation and make you feel “less than” in comparison.
Don’t let the holidays become something you dread! Instead, plan proactively and do your best to be aware of your holiday triggers and manage them accordingly. You can take control and find peace, joy, and gratitude during the holiday season.
Keep in mind that being stressed during the holiday season is very common and is also temporary. If you find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional for help.