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Unwrapping Holiday Stress: Mindfully navigating your relationship to the holiday season

For some people, the holidays represent a time of hope, cheer, love, and connection. For others, the holidays may be less fulfilling, leaving much to be desired. Throughout the more than 13 years I've been in practice as a licensed therapist, I've helped clients experiencing both the former and the latter navigate the holiday season. For folks who associate the holiday season with stress and overall negative experience, this time of year may bring feelings of shame, dread, sadness, loneliness, resentment, or apathy. Whether trauma, grief, religious discord, etc. or over-stimulation, financial strain, politics skew your experience, you may find it difficult to buy-in to the joy some experience. Even those who look forward to this time of year may find themselves navigating unrealistic expectations, jam-packed schedules, and consumer frinzy.

According to a 2018 study by Morning Recovery, consumption of alcohol among Americans incrases by 100% between Thanksgiving and the New Year (1). This increase in consumption may be a result of living it up just a little too much. However, when we consider that alcohol is very effective at temporarily numbing social, emotional, mental discomfort, one could make an argument that the alcohol flows more around the holidays at least partialy, if not largely, due to stress and an attempt to medicate it. In a study by Joy Organics, 88% of Americans reported that the holidays are the most stressful time of year for them (2). Many of the stressors people experience around the holidays include finances, politics, religion, family conflict, travel, gifts, cooking/cleaning/preparing. Take a moment to reflect on what these stressors have in common. All involve judgment, assumption, perception, and perhaps shame. We may assume what others expect of us or think of us, based on religion, how our home looks, what we prepare for the big feast, or getting the "right" gift. Perhaps, the judgment you experience isn't assumptions at all, but blatant communication from others. According to the American Psychological Association (2006), the lower middle class are impacted more by holiday stress than others (3). This may be largely due to the discrepancy between expectation and means.

Various studies show that other significant sources of stress include finances (4), pressure to succeed (5), interpersonal comparrison (6), housing (7), and reliance upong modern creature comforts leading to intolerance of discomfort (8). However, not all is lost, nor do the holidays represent doom and gloom for everyone. In a study published by the American Psychologica Association (9), many Americans report often feeling happiness, love, and connection during the holidays.

As we approach the holiday season, I offer a few pointers to readers who may find themselves feeling a little taxed or even extremely stressed.

First, slow down and set realistic expectations. When making plans, consider what you can actually and reasonably fit into your schedule. Consider saying "No" or "Maybe next year" to invitations you aren't interested in, or feel stressed toward accommodating. There are only a few weeks during this time. Gathering with friends and family to celebrate a specific event may feel important to you, but at what cost? Are you able to show up in a meaningful way or enjoy the event? Or, are you simply trying to make an appearance? People will recover if you aren't able to make it.

Letting go of the need to control too many outcomes may free you up to focus on what is actually important and meaningful to you.

Second, plan ahead. Organizing where and when you committed being somewhere will help you better understand what you can take on versus what you politely pass on. If you're traveling, give yourself enough time to reach your destination without feeling rushed. If you're unable to renegotiate timing on the departure, alter your expectations around arrival times. You may find that simply giving yourself a break surrounding stories you tell yourself about time can significantly reduce stress and anxiety.

If you're hosting, consider what is most important to you and your guests. Is the meal the most significant component? Or, is catching up with your guests more important to you? Maybe something else takes priority for you. Whatever is most important, prioritize that! Plan everything else around the top priority. There can be other priorities, just be clear on what's most important in order to set realistic expectations for effort, energy spent, and intended outcomes.

Third, clean the slate. Take a moment before entering the gathering to cleanse yourself of whatever you don't need in that moment. If people have hurt you, consider what you need in order to navigate this time safely, healthfully, and intentionally. Perhaps, you limit their access to you. Perhaps, you're able to unburden yourself from animosity. Or, perhaps, you simply prioritize your having an enjoyable time over the anger you feel.

One way to make space and be present is to take some deep breaths - in through your nose, rising your gut rather than chest, and out through your mouth until your lungs are empty. Slow, deep, cleansing breaths. Focusing only on your breath. Remember that your breath is something you can control when you need to, but don't have to dwell on it. Find the place in your body you feel your breath the most. Direct your attention there, and take a few breaths when you feel yourself getting tense or elevated. If necessary, take a bathroom break to reset.

Similar to above, the fourth tip is to be a terrible bellhop. You are not in charge of other people's baggage. Don't take it on, and don't invite it. You will not change anyone's opinion in the short window of time you're visiting. You are not beholden to catering to them, nor are you charged with radically opening their eyes to your point of view.

People may not stop throwing their bags at you, just because you stop taking them. Eventually, like anyone doing a terrible job, you'll get fired as the resident bag carrier. Just keep those boundries in place. These boundaries are yours, not theirs. So remember, you'll likely be the one putting effort into maintaining them.

If you're able to get outside during the holidays, be sure to do that. Being in nature has so many benefits, many of which I've written about in other blogs. Simply taking in some fresh air can refresh your experience.

Lastly, be mindful of your alcohol (or other substance) consumption. If drinking booze has been a problem for you, maybe you want to stay away from them all together this time. At least do yourself the favor of consciously making decisions around your consumption. Before opening another, pause. Consider how you're feeling. Do you genuinely want another and feel like you have capacity for it? Or, are you engaging in a habitual or avoidant strategy?

Whatever your relationship to the holiday season, I sincerely wish you hope and contentment. May you know peace, love, kindness, and joy. May you learn how to achieve these in a way that is healthy and accessible to you. If you're met with challenge, may you at least change one thing to shift your experience in a more meaningful and intentional direction.

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