Navigating Holiday Stress

Written by Jeremy Schumacher, MA, LMFT

It’s the most wonderful time of the year” goes the famous Christmas song, and yet, for many of us, the holidays are some of the most stressful times of the year. Even for those of us who love the holidays, there can be a lot to get done in a short amount of time. Here are some helpful tips and tricks to help get the most out of the holidays this year.

Set Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations is a useful skill year-round, but holidays can really ratchet the pressure up on our expectations. Maybe we want to give the best gift ever, or we normally send out the earliest Christmas cards, or host the most fashionable dinner party, but many of us are competing against an idealized version of the past, or maybe against a fictional version of reality we saw on TV or in a movie. We would all love to have the perfect family gathering, but if every year Thanksgiving devolves into political debate or airing of grievances, then we can safely assume that will likely happen again. One of my many mantras that is great for setting expectations: Plan for the worst, hope for the best, and somewhere in the middle is most likely to happen.

Schedule Breaks

Giving yourself permission to take some time to breathe, to de-stress, and to invest in your mental well-being is so important. When we feel busy or overwhelmed, the first thing we tend to cut is our recreation or feel-good activities, but the reverse is typically more useful. As our stress levels go up, our stress relief also needs to go up. If we have a lot of presents to wrap or shopping to do, a useful tip can be what I call “chunking,” which is simply breaking large tasks (i.e., wrapping all the presents) into more manageable chunks (wrapping presents for the kids today, doing presents for extended family tomorrow). This allows us to balance our time with tasks we need to get done with some time to reset and rejuvenate. Motivation feeds on success, so if we feel good crossing smaller tasks off our list we will stay more motivated to keep working through our to-do list.

Have An Escape Plan

Sometimes we can get overwhelmed even without any clear, obvious stressor (introverts, looking at you). We may love our family and love to get together, but we still might need to step outside for a breather or find a few minutes of peace and quiet. For some of us, we may have a family gathering with that side of the family (you know the one), and feeling comfortable saying we need to go for a walk or make a trip to the store to give ourselves a break can be the difference between a good family gathering and a terrible one. If your family leans into more toxic interactions (grandpa constantly asks you why your are not married yet, or Uncle Bob wants to argue about climate change), give yourself permission to not stay in that environment for long. You can make an appearance, say hi to everyone and catch up without needing to commit an entire day or even half the day to a potentially toxic environment.

Focus On What Is Best About the Season For You

Finding peace of mind during the craziness of the season can be a struggle, but focusing on what you enjoy about the season can help you not get bogged down by negatives. Practice gratitude by highlighting what is good about the season, and set boundaries around what you feel is most important about the holidays for yourself. Maybe your family wants all day for Christmas, but you really want to see your friend before they leave town. Give yourself permission to prioritize what means the most, even if it doesn’t align with other peoples’ hopes or expectations.

The holidays can bring other stressors as well, such as grieving the loss of a loved one, processing past trauma, and confronting unhealthy family dynamics. If these issues cause major mental distress, it may be appropriate to seek more formal professional help.

Holidays can truly be a season of giving thanks and merry-making, and by setting healthy expectations and boundaries we can get the most out of the season.

Wishing you and yours the very best this holiday season,

Jeremy