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Nov 29, 2023

Maintaining Wellness: Coping With Holiday Stress

Sheila Tucker

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If you’re part of the 38 percent, feeling the stress and pressures of the holidays combined with an increase in your anxiety or depression response, here are a few ways to prioritize your mental health and well-being.

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Tis the season to be jolly. But is it really? Uh, not so much for everyone.

The holidays bring expectations, like finding the perfect gifts, their potential financial impact, and ensuring that magical little tattle-tale elf has epic (and sometimes questionable) adventures. Oh, and the lights. I love how they sparkle. Especially when someone else puts them up and takes them down.

Then there are the “peopling” obligations—balancing the time between work events, family gatherings, and appetizers with friends, not to mention prepping the house for guests or packing to be the guest. The holidays can become even more overwhelming when adding in existing anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and financial or family issues. It’s a lot. Simply thinking about it is exhausting.

No wonder the American Psychological Association reports a 38 percent increase in stress during the holiday season among the people surveyed. Honestly, I’m shocked the percentage isn’t higher. It’s a whole lot of juggling for the jingle. And it’s one of the reasons I boycotted the holidays one year. For full disclosure, I was in my 20s and did not have children, creating an accessible boycotting opportunity.

My parents divorced when I was five, so I’ve spent many years volleying between houses and experiencing multiple iterations of the same holiday. I mean, the extended holiday celebrations weren’t all that bad when I was younger.

But as I became older, the back and forth, family discord and the stress of planning grew stale. There was only a glimpse of fun in our dysfunctional family. Much to the dismay of my family, I tapped out of the usual hot-mess Christmas gymnastics that had me traveling, consoling, and playing nice.

It didn’t go over well, but neither did holidays past. Only this stand would be more like ripping off the Band-Aid than slowly pulling out each hair one at a time. The pleas and crying soon turned to accusations of me being selfish and some other forms of passive-aggressive forte which some of my family members execute with gold medal Olympian precision.

I held fast to my decision through it all, knowing I’d made the best choice that year. It wasn’t all tears and insults, though. The other half of my family nearly high-fived me through the phone for standing up for my wants and needs. There was a sense of solidarity and pride that they raised an independent thinker who was not afraid to buck the system. Families are fascinating that way.

Boycotting the holidays isn’t for everyone. Over the years, I’ve spent holiday celebrations with amazingly close, connected, and loving families where there was a lot of ease, and the stress melted away. These fun humans would immediately break out into holiday songs and expect full household participation. Okay, maybe living in a holiday musical was slightly stressful.

If you’re part of the 38 percent, feeling the stress and pressures of the holidays combined with an increase in your anxiety or depression response, here are a few ways to prioritize your mental health and well-being:

Set boundaries, but with a twist. I’m suggesting you set boundaries with yourself first by prioritizing what matters most to you while trying not to let guilt drive your decisions. What do you realistically and energetically have the time to do? How much can you realistically afford to spend during the holidays? How do you want to feel this holiday season? How do you want your family to feel? What do you want to experience? How about your family?

Then, assess how you want others to treat you during the holidays. For example, plan an exit strategy ahead of time or what you’ll say to that one person with a history of crossing the line during holiday functions.

For those who need to hear this, you have permission to say no this holiday season. You have permission to decline any engagement or perceived obligation. Repeat after me, “I’m sorry I can’t make it this year. But thank you so much for including me.”

Check those expectations. Embrace the imperfections instead of chasing down a nearly unattainable social media ideal. Again, assess your time and energy. Then, determine if what you want is realistic or attainable. If all is in check, it’s a priority, or upholds a value, then go for it.

Consider creating a new tradition. Is there something you currently do for the holidays that you could tweak to alleviate just a tad of pressure and stress? Maybe something you could simplify?

Work in a few moments of self-care. Or don’t abandon your existing routines that already work for you. Examples of self-care include having lunch, chatting, or walking with a friend. It could also look like walking the dog, reading, listening to a podcast, napping, or working out. Don’t let time be your enemy. It doesn’t have to be for an extended amount of time. And I say this a lot: Only you know what self-care is for you.

Seek support. Openly communicate your feelings and concerns. Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for support—especially if you’re grieving.

In the end, my mental well-being won out. Honestly, I didn’t know how being “alone” for the holidays would go. However, I experienced one of the calmest, most stress-free, and soothing holidays. It was light and leisurely, spending time with a few close friends and immersing myself in an entertaining read.

Let’s face it: As much as we would all love the holiday season to be a time of joy, connection, and rejuvenation, for many, it’s just not. It’s far more complicated and stressful. It may include grief and more than likely elicits an eye roll at the thought of being “holly jolly.” Nowadays, I acknowledge the various holiday stressors that arise and do what I can to ensure I don’t over-commit.

Creating boundaries, setting realistic(ish) expectations, simplifying, maintaining routines, implementing other forms of self-care, and seeking support are significant steps toward reducing holiday stress and pressure. 

Wishing you a very peaceful holiday season.  

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She empowers clients who overthink, worry, and experience their fair share of anxiety to become more rooted in peace, ease, and confidence. When not in the office, you’ll find her walking her pups or planning her next mountain getaway with her husband.

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