Tips for Coping with Holiday Stress

The Counselling Centre, Saint Mary’s University

For some people, the holidays bring an unwelcome guest, stress, and it's no wonder, trying to finish papers and exams, shop for gifts, prepare to go home for the holidays etc. One key to minimizing holiday stress is knowing that the holidays can trigger stress and sometimes depression. Accept that things aren’t always going to go as planned, and then take active steps to manage stress that often accompany the holidays. The holidays are a time to meet friends and family but also unwind and relax too.

The trigger points of holiday stress

Holiday stress is often the result of three main trigger points. Understanding these trigger points can help you plan ahead on how to accommodate them.

  • Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time. But tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflict can intensify — especially if you're all thrust together for several days. Conflicts are bound to arise with so many needs and interests to accommodate. On the other hand, if you're facing the holidays without a loved one, you may find yourself especially lonely or sad.

  • Finances. Like your relationships, your financial situation can cause stress at any time of the year. Overspending during the holidays on gifts, travel, food and entertainment can increase stress as you try to make ends meet while ensuring that everyone on your gift list is happy.

  • Physical demands. The strain of shopping, attending social gatherings and preparing holiday meals can wipe you out. Feeling exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. High demands, stress, lack of exercise, and overindulgence in food and drink — these are all ingredients for holiday illness.

Strategies for managing holiday stress

When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. Take steps to help prevent normal holiday depression from progressing into chronic depression. Try these tips:

  • Acknowledge your feelings. If a loved one has recently died or you aren't near your loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness or grief. It's OK now and then to take time just to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

  • Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community or religious services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your social circle. Also, enlist support for organizing holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don't have to go it alone.

  • Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to, but understand in some cases that may no longer be possible. Perhaps your entire extended family can't gather together at your house. Instead, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or video chat.

  • Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. Be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are, they're feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.

  • Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items, then be sure to stick to your budget, if you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.  Agree to a spending limit and stick to it.

  • Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and schedule time for physical activity.

  • Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing and restores your calm. The holidays are a time for you to be alone too.

  • Rethink resolutions. Resolutions can set you up for failure if they're unrealistic. Don't resolve to change your whole life to make up for past excess. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose only those resolutions that help you feel valuable and provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.

  • Forget about perfection. Holiday TV specials are filled with happy endings, but in real life, people don't usually resolve problems within an hour or two. Things may not go according to plan all the time. Expect and accept imperfections, balance is key