Coping with Holiday Stress - Essential Tips for Mental Health This Season

December 17, 2020

Coping with Holiday Stress - Essential Tips for Mental Health This Season

In this article:

  • What is holiday stress?
  • Coping mechanisms for holiday stress
  • What causes holiday stress?
  • How is mental health affected by holiday stress and vice versa?
  • Managing holiday stress during the pandemic (COVID-19)
  • Dealing with stress eating during the holidays

Let’s start by just saying that if you struggle with elevated stress during the holidays, you’re far from being alone. If you’re struggling even more this year, you’re likely not in the minority. Have you ever felt guilty for not being chipper and excited the moment December arrives? In reality, this is not how emotions work, and there’s no need to put this kind of pressure on yourself. This holiday season there may be even more to stress with the unknowns about who will be able to gather and travel and who won’t. The extra uncertainty doesn’t help.

Holiday stress is well documented but not often voiced. We don’t like to admit to feeling like a Grinch, nor do we want others to see us that way. As much as we like to associate stress strictly with negative life events, it can certainly be triggered by joyous events as well, especially if the preparation and planning is overwhelming. Keep reading as we dig deeper into what causes holiday stress, its triggers, and most importantly - ways to manage it in a healthy way. After all, we all deserve to enjoy our holiday time whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Q & A

Is holiday stress real?

It is important to remember, and not just during the holidays, that everything you’re feeling is valid. Sometimes it’s difficult to bring up the topic of holiday stress during the most ‘wonderful time of the year’, but just because you won’t say so during Christmas dinner doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Many factors can cause holiday stress and it can also be different for each of us. These factors can include stress from planning, the pressure of starting a new year, over-inflated expectations of ourselves and others, and of course during 2020, HEALTH! Considering the current pandemic we are all living through, it’s no wonder many people are struggling with stress more than previous years.

You should also know that there are two types of stress: eustress (related to positive events such as holidays) and distress (negative stress). [1] Even though eustress is essentially positive, for many people it can be extremely uncomfortable.

How can we reduce holiday stress?

Stay true to yourself - there’s no reason to fake anything. Holiday season or not, you need to remember that you are in charge of your time. If you’re not in the mood for socializing, even if it’s your immediate family, be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. Make time for the things that bring you a bit of peace or help you feel relaxed and be certain to take care of yourself. Remember, we can only be available to others insofar as we have taken care of ourselves. So bake that extra batch of Christmas cookies or go for an extra long walk if that is what you feel you need to do. Also, practice saying no to plans or social gatherings if they don’t feel safe or comfortable. It might be difficult at first to not feel guilty, but learning to set boundaries around your needs is a good place to start.

Avoid unrealistic expectations - life is not a Christmas movie! Your holiday decor doesn’t have to be Instagram-approved, and you don’t have to go overboard with Christmas presents. Also, do your best to avoid comparing yourself to others. Comparison hangovers when it comes to your holiday menu or gift giving won’t do you any favors. Just do you.

Something that none of us are immune to this year is the fact that larger gatherings of family and friends are largely canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. If you’re used to hosting a big Christmas dinner, or attending fun NYE parties, it won’t be easy to adjust. Low-key celebrations are fun for introverts but some of us look forward to a little sparkle and the energy of a larger group. Even though virtual gathers don’t replace the warmth of a real-life hug, they still allow us to communicate and connect and this is key. Organize a Zoom video call with your loved ones in advance just like you would plan a regular holiday even. Give your online gatherings a theme until it’s time to enjoy each other’s company again. How about a virtual game night? It may be more fun than you may think!

Aim for balance, not perfection. It is completely okay to let go and treat yourself during the holiday season. I mean, when better to enjoy some of your favorite cookies with a cup of mulled wine if not now. Just tune into yourself and be mindful of how you feel. No one feels great after consecutive days of going overboard with too much alcohol or sweets. Instead, try and create a balance. Light exercise at home or outdoors on a daily basis (even just for 15 minutes) may do you some good, especially since it releases endorphins which promote a better mood. [3]

While many of us try a new nutrition plan or detox after the holidays, a social media plan may be just what you need this month! The overuse of social media during stressful times of year can act as a coping mechanism, but it is unlikely that more time staring at your screen will help. Try setting up a notification on your smartphone to let you know when you’ve surpassed 15 minutes. You can also make a plan to turn your phone off between certain hours of the day or call it quits after 8pm. It’s been shown that less screen time before going to sleep can help you to get a better night’s rest.

Practice gratitude. It is easy to get caught up in buying presents, trying to impress others, or stressing about a new recipe. While anxiety around these issues is totally normal, try starting each day with a practice of gratitude. Write down 1-thing every morning that you feel grateful for and tape it to the bathroom mirror. Reflect on the good things that happened in your life even if it just meant getting through 3 months of home-schooling or being able to read more novels.

Don’t let your list of New Year’s resolutions get the best of you. While resolutions can bring a positive change into our lives, they could also set us up for failure if our expectations aren’t coordinated with reality. [4] Set realistic goals for yourself and start small, since change takes time. Healthy habits aren’t developed overnight, so instead of being too strict, allow yourself to take baby steps towards your goals. Tiny habits lead to great change.

There’s no such thing as perfection. Yes, we all have our traditions and family rituals, but if you’re simply not in the mood or your schedule is already packed, cut yourself some slack. There’s no need to follow a strict timeline in your attempt to make everyone else happy if your heart’s not in it. Don’t be afraid to modify or change your mind. [5]

What causes holiday stress?

Without a doubt, our own expectations may be the number one trigger for stress during the holidays. Learning to go with the flow is indeed a learned skill. The perfection we’re often aiming for is unrealistic, and as we’ve already mentioned, we’re not living in a Christmas movie. We are, however, able to create a pleasant environment for ourselves if we choose to embrace what is in front of us.

Remember that Christmas presents do not have to be extravagant in order to be remembered. Setting a budget for yourself to avoid spending too much is probably the best way to approach shopping for presents. You can also consider DIY gifts and getting creative with your hands. Letting people know that you are thinking about them is what counts. Not the price tag.

At the end of every year, we tend to look back and reminisce on both the good and the bad. It is crucial to avoid overthinking or “analysis paralysis.” All of our lives have been turned upside down due to COVID-19. Taking things 1-day at a time is key. We all have unresolved issues, unfulfilled tasks, or things we’d still like to achieve. Instead, make a list of things that you are looking forward to next year and slowly prioritize until you’re left with just 3 important ones to focus on. Keep it manageable.

How does holiday stress affect mental health and vice versa?

Holiday stress can be both a consequence and a cause of mental health issues during the holidays. If you’re being too hard on yourself during the holidays, this may trigger anxiety and depression. On the other hand, if you’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression throughout the year, holiday stress may just add fuel to the fire. At the end of the day, the order of things doesn’t make too big of a difference. What does make a difference is how you treat yourself, your spirit, and your mind during the holidays.

This time of year is also when the seasonal affective disorder (SAD) strikes - a condition related to change in seasons, which usually starts when the days get shorter and we have less fresh air and sunlight. [6] If you’re feeling moody and tired due to this condition, speaking to a therapist is the best way to overcome your holiday blues. There are many different kinds of therapy, which can be a great way to manage your mental health long term.

How to manage holiday stress during a pandemic?

It’s difficult to talk about holiday stress this year without talking about COVID-19. For many of us the pandemic has impacted every single aspect of our lives in unimaginable ways. Our new normal doesn’t really feel normal at all and many of us are still experimenting with how we can cope.

Use technology the way it suits you best. Some of us enjoy video calls with 25 people but others prefer a 1-on-1 facetime call. Similarly, you might not have time for 1-hr zoom calls every day but 3 shorter calls of 15 minutes each might work better for you. Ask yourself which format and timeline is healthiest for you and plan accordingly. It’s not one size fits all.

As we already mentioned, limiting your time on social media or watching news is important for giving yourself a mental break. Set boundaries around digital media and allow it to serve you rather than the other way around.

How to deal with holiday stress eating?

Emotional eating is something we have all experienced. After all, eating is never totally separate from our emotions. When emotional eating becomes a problem is when we develop an over-reliance on it during times of intense emotions or stress. [7] With the holidays approaching, anxiety around the quantity and kinds of foods we eat can increase.

First, make a list of the things that help you to relax or take a “mindful minute” when you need it. Outlets like exercise, a brisk walk, listening to music, or a hot bath can become easy, self-care activities that won’t induce the kind of discomfort or feelings of guilt that eating too much often does. Make a list, keep it handy. Try one of these things when you feel stressed.

Practicing mindful or intuitive eating is one way to become more present when you snack or indulge. Though mindful eating won’t happen overnight, the practice of trying to become more self-aware and present during snacking and meal times is an approach to nutrition that will serve you well during the holidays and beyond. Avoid labeling foods as strictly “good” or “bad”, and exercise more acceptance around ALL food choices. Check out a more in-depth guide on intuitive eating here.

Prioritize healthy foods. You’re less likely to feel cravings from stress or hunger if your daily diet offers up enough of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to stay energized and fueled. Just because you have a larger holiday meal later in the day, doesn’t mean you need to skip breakfast. By placing the most importance on our healthy meals, we’re less likely to succumb to over-eating or eating for stress.

Summary

It is okay to be stressed, confused, angry, or scared. Once acknowledged, these emotions can be processed, and eventually, you can overcome them. Just because the holidays are marketed to us as some sort of euphoria doesn’t mean that your emotions should be suppressed. Use the tips and methods for better self-awareness above to have a happier holiday in both mind and body.

Summary Points

  • Holiday stress is very common, but not often voiced when it needs to be
  • There are many ways to limit holiday stress, including setting realistic expectations, not beating yourself up, practicing gratitude, and staying in touch with your loved ones
  • Holiday stress can take a toll on mental health, and conditions around anxiety or depression can further intensify it
  • Even though stress is amplified during the pandemic, it is important to invest in self-care and prioritize healthy nutrition

Article References:

  1. Types of Stressors (Eustress vs. Distress). (2015). Retrieved from Mentalhelp.net website: https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/types-of-stressors-eustress-vs-distress/
  2. Tips for coping with holiday stress. (2017). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544
  3. DeNoon, D. J. (2008, May 30). Exercise and Depression. Retrieved from WebMD website: https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1
  4. 4 Mindful Tips to De-Stress This Holiday Season. (n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2020, from www.hopkinsmedicine.org website: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/4-mindful-tips-to-destress-this-holiday-season
  5. October 29, A. M., & 2018. (2018, October 29). 17 Top Tips from Psychologists for Dealing with Holiday Stress. Retrieved December 11, 2020, from Best Life website: https://bestlifeonline.com/holiday-stress/
  6. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - Symptoms and causes. (2017). Retrieved from Mayo Clinic website: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
  7. 13 Ways to Prevent Stress Eating When You’re Stuck at Home. (2020, March 27). Retrieved from Healthline website: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-prevent-stress-eating-when-youre-stuck-at-home




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