By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | November 25, 2022
If the holidays don’t feel like the often quoted ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ you aren’t alone in that feeling. At an early age, we learn that the holidays are times for festivity, a time for the entire family to come together in perfect joy. Social media shows idyllic images of beautiful families together, flawlessly cultivated dinner tables, and impeccably wrapped gifts that make us believe this is what the holidays should look like.
When the expectation of a joyful and peaceful holiday season doesn’t match the reality of our experiences, we feel disappointed and sorrowful.
For many, the holidays are a dreaded, painful time of year. The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and when you add financial burden, travel, or visits with sometimes difficult family members to the mix, the stress piles up quickly. The holidays constitute a special difficulty for those who have lost friends or family members, and for those having experienced significant change or trauma in their lives.
The following describes some common holiday stressors and guidance for coping:
Stressor: Pressure for the “perfect” holiday gathering
The holidays are certainly a busy time of year! We shop, cook, bake, attend parties, wrap gifts, prepare meals, decorate, make plans, travel, connect with friends, and all while we try to find some time for ourselves. It’s exhausting! Attempting to do it all is not only impractical, but it also takes a toll on our mental and emotional health.
How to Cope:
Focus on what really matters
Reflect on what is most important to you, then align your activities and actions with this value. For example, you may value making meaningful connections. If you spend most of the evening preparing the perfect meal while missing out on time spent with family and friends, then perfect meal prep does not align with your values. Remember: the holidays don’t have to be perfect or look a certain way to be memorable and special.
Set realistic expectations
As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. For example, adult children or other relatives may not be able to gather when you want them to, or there isn’t a budget for top-end gifts on your kid’s wish-list. Make sure your expectations are realistic. For example, if you expect too much from yourself or someone else, brainstorm what you can give up aligning the reality of the situation to what you expect the holidays to look like.
Be gentle with yourself
You are human, and there’s only so much you can do each day or a given holiday. Respond to your human limits by setting boundaries and finding ways to Have the Courage to Say No. Learn How to Be Gentle with Yourself and How to Practice Self-Compassion. Give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions may arise during this stressful and sometimes difficult time of year.
Stressor: Anxiety about family gatherings
For some, family gatherings result in an enjoyable time. For many, family gatherings provoke only stress and anxiety. You may feel self-conscious or feel pressured to keep up the conversation. You may dread the inevitable fights or need help Surviving the Holidays with a Narcissistic Family Member.
How to Cope:
Although you may feel pressured to attend a holiday party or gathering, check-in first with your wants and needs to identify your readiness. If you decide to attend, remind yourself that you don’t have to stay the entire time. Read How to Deal with Your (difficult) Family this Holiday Season for more boundary-setting tips.
Anticipate challenging circumstances, people, or situations and develop a plan to manage the difficult emotions that may arise. You may find it tempting to “numb out” with alcohol but opt instead to challenge yourself to stay present, even in the presence of negative emotions. Plan ahead by getting a good night’s rest, staying sober, and identifying your coping strategies (like taking a walk, deep breathing, or affirmations). Have an exit strategy. It will help make your experience more enjoyable.
Assume good intent
Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they have different views and opinions. Set aside grievances for a more appropriate time for discussion. Show understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry; they likely feel the effects of holiday stress too. Be proactive in preventing and resolving conflicts and pay attention to your internal cues that suggest you risk losing your cool. Stay calm and take a breath before you speak. Prepare a rehearsed statement that you can use such as “let’s put a hold on this for another time.”
Stressor: Grieving a loss
The holiday season may look different this year because of the changes that took place over the past few years. This may mean foregoing parties, visits with family and friends, and participating in community activities and celebrations. We face the difficult task of readjusting our expectations for the holidays, which means Grieving the Loss of the Holidays as we know it. If you have lost a loved one or will be missing someone’s presence during the festivities, you are likely to feel this grief more intensely.
How to Cope:
Make plans and get the support you need
Give yourself the permission to develop new holiday rituals and traditions. Ask what traditions comfort you and allow yourself to participate in whatever feels right to you, or not. Share your plans with family and friends ahead of time and inform them what is helpful, and what is not helpful. Avoid the circumstances that you don’t feel ready to handle, but don’t isolate yourself. Make time for quiet reflection and grieving but balance it with activities with loved ones who accept and love you amidst your sorrow. And remember it is okay to accept offers from others to cook, shop, or decorate!
Allow yourself to grieve
There is no one “right” way to grieve, and no correct timeline. Allow yourself to feel what you feel, whether that’s joy or sadness, anger, or relief. Experiencing joy and laughter during the holidays honors the person who died and does not mean that you have forgotten them. Be gentle with yourself and others while recognizing that each family member may stand at a different stage of healing than you.
Honor your loved one
It may comfort you to incorporate a new tradition or ritual that honors the person who died. For example: create a memory box filled with photos or love notes from family members and friends, light a candle, say a prayer, or share a memory, write a poem, play your loved one’s favorite music or game, invite a moment of silence or toast at mealtime, make a donation or volunteer for a cause that your loved one found meaningful. Read Coping with Loss During the Holidays for more suggestions and inspiration for healing.
Stressor: The physical toll of stress
Stress affects all systems of the body including physical, mental, and emotional. When we encounter increased stress around the holidays, we notice its effects even more. For example, stress can make you more susceptible to illness, cause headaches, disrupt sleep, or contribute to feeling depressed or anxious.
How to Cope:
Protect your health by prioritizing activities that reduce stress and help you recharge. It is not selfish to spend time on yourself with mindfulness meditation, yoga, spending time with friends or family, taking a bath or watching a movie. If you feel especially overwhelmed, focus on the basics: proper nutrition, healthy movement, and good sleep hygiene. Read Mindfulness for Holiday Stress to inspire other ways of finding calm moments amidst the hustle and bustle.
Spend time outdoors
As the days get shorter and daylight fades much earlier, you may start to feel “down.” What many people refer to as the “winter blues” could be a lack of Vitamin D, the important nutrient that helps boost our immune system and plays an important role in mental health. Increase your levels of Vitamin D with 8 to 15 minutes of sun exposure per day. So, take a little break and soak up the rays!