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’Tis the season for holiday stress and anxiety

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

Close up of a frost covered tree branch with glowing lights in the distance

The holidays are a time to be merry and cheerful, right? No? Don’t worry, it’s not just you—this season can be seriously stressful and even sad for a lot of people.

Everyone’s experience is different, but most of us who feel stressed out by the holidays will recognize at least a few of these reasons why:

  • High expectations: From picking the perfect gift to decorating your home to choosing a festive outfit, the pressure to live up to expectations can be very daunting.
  • Demanding schedules: Like clockwork every November, we find ourselves with a stack of holiday tasks to add to our already stuffed to-do lists. On top of that, there are all kinds of holiday events to attend. Who has the time?
  • Money: The holidays are famously expensive. If you’re already struggling with money the rest of the year, this season brings a whole new level of financial stress.
  • Food and alcohol: 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.  
  • Social settings: Holiday events can be hard for people with social anxiety, even when they’re around friends and family. It can also be tough for those who feel obligated or pressured to spend time with relatives they don’t get along with well.
  • Loneliness: The holidays can trigger feelings of loneliness in people with physical or emotional distance in their relationships. It can be especially hard for people who’ve lost loved ones or gone through a breakup recently.
  • Parenting: Parents may feel pressure to give their kids the best possible holiday experience, which can contribute to parental burnout. For parents who need to work during the holidays while their kids are off school, finding childcare can be another major source of stress.
  • New goals: As if recovering from a holiday food coma weren’t hard enough, come January 1 we also face the expectation of getting our lives in order by immediately setting new goals and kicking off healthy new habits.

If you’re already struggling with your mental health

The holidays are stressful for us all. But for people who struggle with their mental health, they can bring a whole new set of challenges.

A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2014 reported that 64% of people with mental illness said their conditions were worsened by the holiday season.1 Out of that 64%, 40% of participants reported that the holidays made their mental health conditions “somewhat worse,” while the other 24% opted for “a lot worse.”

One particular mental health condition that deserves close attention at this time of year is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. 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.

Keep in mind that it can be tricky to tell the difference between diagnosable mental illness and temporary feelings of stress or negativity. The term “holiday blues” is often used to describe holiday-related feelings of stress, loneliness, anxiety, and sadness. These feelings typically fade once the season ends.

How to cope with holiday stress

Most of us experience at least some stress during the holiday season, but there are ways to manage it. Consider the following strategies:

Practice self-reflection

Self-reflection is an opportunity to get to know yourself on a deeper level and understand your needs. Remember to be compassionate toward yourself, let yourself feel angry or frustrated as needed, and be honest about what your mind and body need to keep you healthy.  

Set boundaries

It’s essential to set healthy limits 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

Scheduling time for yourself 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.

Be realistic

You can’t do it all, so don’t make commitments you know you can tackle only by burning the candle at both ends. If you’re struggling to figure out how long a task might take, try researching it, breaking it down into smaller pieces, or asking a friend what they think.

Make a plan

Planning ahead and getting organized is one way to help yourself feel like you’re in control. Try to consider one task at a time. If it’s shopping for gifts, make your list (and check it twice, of course) and schedule a specific time to go. If it’s baking, gather your recipes, write down all the ingredients you need, and reserve a time to go to the grocery store.

Get out and move around

Going outside for at least 20 minutes, ideally early in the day, can boost your mood while also helping regulate your circadian rhythms.2 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.

Limit alcohol consumption

A drink might make you feel good at first, but since alcohol is a depressant, it 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.

Mind your nutrition

It can be hard to recognize when your feelings might be contributing to changes in your appetite. Sometimes eating too much or too little is just a temporary reaction to stress, but at other times it can point to something more serious, like an eating disorder.

Don’t forget to sleep 

It can be tempting to stay up late wrapping gifts or sneaking in a little extra “me time,” but making a habit of it can wreak havoc on your mind and body. Try to limit working late or staring at screens too close to bedtime. Instead, do something that relaxes you and gets you ready for sleep.

Ask for help

We can handle so much more with support from others. Whether you need help decorating or just want to get something off your chest, look to the people you love and trust rather than trying to go it alone.

How to get support

With awareness and some extra planning, the holidays don’t have to feel like a burden. Stress may be a given at this time of year, but it shouldn’t consume your life.

If you’re having trouble with your feelings or find yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviors this holiday season, talking to a therapist can help. Visit our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.