How Holiday Stress Can Affect Your Mental Health

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Feeling stress during christmas holiday
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The holiday season can be one of joy and connection. But it can also be a source of stress, as we try to juggle increased family and social obligations, along with a myriad of holiday-related tasks. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic presents added stressors, since many of us may not be able to get together in person with loved ones, or are grieving the loss of family members who have passed away.

Even before the coronavirus, the holidays–idealized as a time of cheer–have been known to trigger stress, which in some vulnerable people can lead to depression and anxiety. Experts say there are ways to manage holiday stress. The first step: understanding why it occurs.

Why do 'happy holidays' cause unhappiness?

The holidays occur during the winter months, which also coincide with shorter daylight hours for people living in northern climates. About 6% of American adults experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression, due to the lack of exposure to sunlight. Another 14% experience winter blues. This means a good chunk of Americans start the holidays already on a downward emotional spiral.

Holiday stress can be caused by many other factors, as well. Chief among them:

  • Outsized expectations. From holiday movies to your own family's traditions, you may have developed a sense of what the holidays are supposed to be, and feel pressure to live up to this ideal. Christmas and other holidays are seen as times to demonstrate love for the special people in your life. If you're a parent, you may want your young children to experience wonder and joy, and work desperately to create this for them. Or, if your family is not loving and close, you may despair that you can't have the holidays others seem to have.
  • Money woes. Whether you've lost your job due to COVID-19, or have a tight budget for other reasons, it can be stressful to try to figure out how to stretch your dollars to meet holiday demands.
  • Time pressures. You may be asked to take on extra obligations during the holidays: making goods for a bake sale, volunteering for more causes, attending holiday parties (either in person or virtually). Add this to the extra shopping, cooking and cleaning you're already expected to do during the holidays, and up goes your stress meter.
  • Loneliness. Holidays emphasize togetherness, but not everybody has loved ones with whom to share this season. This year, COVID-19 may mean you’re not visiting or celebrating with family members you normally would see. This gap can feel even more enormous during the holiday season, resulting in feelings of isolation and sadness.
  • Family conflicts. You may be expected to visit with relatives you don't otherwise see, with whom you don't get along, or even have been traumatized by. Or you may be the host for a get-together with family members who are likely to fight. These situations can lead to apprehension, dread–and stress.

How can you manage holiday stress?

The holiday season can feel like a whirlwind, propelling you with endless to-dos and don't-you-dare-rest moments. But there are ways to seize control of the season, to slow the pace, to find ways to enjoy the time–or at least to better cope. Expert suggestions for how to do this include:

  • Toss your expectations aside. This is true for the holiday season during any year, but especially this COVID-stricken one, with all its myriad changes and dashed plans. Go with the flow, be flexible, and focus on what you can control–rather than what you cannot.
  • Connect with loved ones. You might not be able to do so in person, but rather through video conference, phone, email or other virtual means, depending on the COVID-19 situation in your area and what local health experts advise. And that's OK. The important thing is to be in contact. You can play online games together, sing carols over Zoom, share photos and videos, or find other ways to make new holiday memories.
  • Care for yourself. "Me time" is important, too–doing for yourself as well as for others. So, say no to excess obligations. Instead, focus on activities you enjoy, which could be yoga, reading a book, listening to music, soaking in the tub, talking to a friend, or volunteering for a favorite charity. Accept help from others so you aren't so burdened.
  • Nurture your body. Get enough sleep, which can be especially difficult to do during the holiday season. (Turning off digital devices a couple of hours before bedtime can help your body's natural melatonin kick in, improving sleep.) Eat nutritious foods. Limit alcohol, which can interfere with sleep. Exercise or engage in other physical activity, outside if possible. This can help fight seasonal affective disorder, while boosting your endorphins (your brain's natural "happy chemicals").
  • Limit social media. Facebook and Instagram can be great ways to connect with friends and family, especially when you can't be with them in person. But sometimes they can serve up overly rosy pictures of others' lives, which we then measure ourselves against, creating stress. If you do indulge in social scrolling, keep in mind you’re only seeing what others choose to present, and not the full picture.
  • Stick to your budget. Don't let yourself get so caught up in the moment that you overspend, resulting in post-holiday stress as you contemplate how to pay for everything. Give yourself the gift of January peace of mind by not overspending in November and December.
  • Be real with your feelings. You may be grieving a loved one who has died, or be missing visits with family members that have been canceled this year, or even be mourning the traditional holiday rituals that you've had to put on hold. Don't deny or hide your emotions, but rather acknowledge and express them. It's OK to cry. Consider journaling or talking over your feelings with supportive loved ones.
  • Seek help if needed. If your holiday stress is greatly affecting your mental health, with symptoms that persist beyond a few weeks, contact a health provider, a mental health hotline, or even 911, if you feel in crisis. You may benefit from working with a counselor.
  • Focus on gratitude and kindness. Other people are likely as stressed or more than you are right now, and may show it with rude or unkind behavior. Don't take their behavior personally; consider responding with kindness, if possible. It's best to let negative people and events flow past, while turning your attention instead on good things in your life, on people you are grateful for, and on the true meaning of the holiday season.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 11
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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