Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

Managing holiday stress

Written by Thomas M. Brounk, PhD, director of mental health services for the Habif Health and Wellness Center at Washington University in St. Louis

For many of us, the winter holidays can be a welcome time off from our usual routines. There is often more time to spend with family and friends. But the holidays can also be a very stressful time.

Many people experience intense feelings during the winter holidays. It is a time of the year that tends to stimulate feelings associated with past memories and expectations. The holidays are also a time for feelings to surface associated with being — or not being — with family. The extremes often associated with the season, including food, drink, feelings, expectations and memories, can create an atmosphere for stress.

Some common stressors include:

  • Lack of money to buy gifts
  • Not feeling as “jolly” as the media tells us we ought to feel
  • Experiencing the holidays differently as we grow older
  • Having to deal with “family dynamics” when everyone returns home for the holidays
  • Overindulgence in food and alcohol
  • Feeling rushed to get everything done (shopping, gift wrapping, baking, etc.)
  • Feelings about friends and family not present during celebrations
  • Fear of not celebrating winter holidays the way we would like to

While holiday stress can often not be eliminated, the following tips can help manage it:

Know what fills you

What kind of contact will be fulfilling for you? What kind of gift exchange will be meaningful to you? What do you need to help yourself feel refreshed? If you know clearly what you want, it is easier to choose activities that are likely to satisfy you.

Ask for what you want

Don’t hint. Don’t wait for someone to read your mind. Don’t expect others to guess what will satisfy you. Speak up. If you’re lonely, ask someone to share your celebration — or ask to share in someone else’s. If you like surprises, let people know. If you need time alone in the midst of togetherness, say so.

If you can’t get what you want, try to want what you get. It’s much more satisfying than wishing for the impossible.

Give yourself permission to feel as you do

Listen to yourself. Feel what you feel, not what you “think you’re supposed to feel,” or “wish you felt.” When you feel down, allow yourself to feel down. It won’t last forever. When you feel excited, go ahead and enjoy it. Manipulating your feelings, or acting contrary to them, will distance you from yourself.

Select patterns with care

Remember your past, and bring it into the present. Your “treasure box of memories” will contain pain as well as warmth and joy, but it offers you a personalized source of depth and richness. Repeat a tradition you’ve always kept. Ask others about their rituals, pick one that’s new for you, and try it as well.

Set priorities

List all the things you want to accomplish before/during the holidays. Cross out unnecessary activities. Do unpleasant tasks as quickly and painlessly as possible, and then reward yourself! The best way to assure that you feel rushed is to procrastinate and get everything done (gift buying, telephone calls, cards, making plans) the day before the holiday. The more stressed and rushed you feel, the more likely it is that you will have a hard time getting into the spirit of the occasion. Keep for yourself the activities you enjoy, even if they aren’t essential or could be done by others. You need them.

Turn obligations into energizers

Even exciting tasks, repeated year after year, can turn into obligations. Update the tasks in a creative way so they provide new energy. If your holiday card list conjures up an image of drudgery, write a compliment to a friend rather than a history of the past year. Surprise selected people on your list with a brief long distance phone call. Pack up your cards and do the job at the library or a favorite restaurant. Any new approach can energize you.

Make positive contact with others

At a party, make sure you have a good conversation with several people. If parties aren’t your thing, make contact in some other situation (at church? at the laundromat? with a classmate? on the bus? with a neglected friend or neighbor?). If your friend or family list is disturbingly short, look around for others in the same situation. Someone in your community could benefit from your caring. Try to reach out and touch someone at a crisis shelter, local hospital, a halfway house, or nursing home — for both of your sakes.