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Military Health System

When the Tinsel Gets Tangled: How to Cope with Holiday Stress

By LT Trinity Dunham, PsyD
Dec. 20, 2021

For some, the holiday season rings of sentimentality, joy, tradition, and magic. For others, not so much. The hustle and bustle, family, finances, and the endless repeat of holiday music everywhere you go…to some these times are difficult. Regardless of which perception you prescribe, the holiday season brings with it a degree of stress. With each holiday card we write, gallon of eggnog we consume, or holiday event we attend (or creatively dodge) our stress fluctuates. The last few years – 2019, 2020, and 2021 – brought with them numerous changes, positive and negative, which may have altered some of our holiday experiences, traditions, and enthusiasm. Still, the exorbitant collection of holiday demands exists – cooking, shopping, and entertaining, just to name a few. These compile atop normal life stressors and may even intensify or trigger other experiences– depression, anxiety, grief, adjustment to life changes, illness, among others.1

A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 38 percent of people report a noticeable increase in stress during the holidays, with women (44 percent) more likely to experience holiday stress than men (31 percent). Their findings suggest that people identify lack of time, lack of money, commercialism/hype, and pressures associated with gift giving as the primary culprits of increased stress. Additionally, perceived obligations and responsibilities to meet expectations and create a positive, joyful experience for family members adds to holiday stress experiences with approximately half of men (49 percent) and women (51 percent) reporting pressure to make sure family members are happy.

So, if holiday stress is inevitable, how do we cope with or manage it? One key factor is perspective. Overall, stress is neither good nor bad, rather it can be helpful (eustress) or unhelpful (distress) and how we respond to it can have positive or negative consequences.2 I often tell people stress is intended to exist and is necessary to drive certain functions – fight or flight responses, metabolism, memory, and learning for instance.3 After all, without stress how would I remember to move my son's Elf on the Shelf each night (thank you peer pressure for THAT particular holiday stressor) or set boundaries with specific family members during the holiday? Without stress how would I keep my annual Turkey Trot or Reindeer Dash 10k pace on point? For us, with stress being a natural experience, the first steps to coping with holiday stress is to attend to how we perceive, own, and respond to unique holiday stressors.

How do we do that? We check our expectations. The holidays are filled with expectations fueled by commercial and social media resources which may or may not be realistic. These expectations can trigger comparisons between our experiences and others and can exacerbate holiday stress or trigger emotional distress. It is important we determine our own expectations, remain flexible in them, and find value in our personal experience (emotions or thoughts), positive or not.4 For example, holiday decorations stress me out, mainly because I am a minimalist, but also because the decorations I have I inherited from my mother, who passed away in 2018. My young son, however, lives for the holidays and would happily reside at the North Pole and sleep in a nest of Christmas lights, snow globes, and kitschy holiday décor. Each year I monitor my expectations attempting to find a balance between perfect holiday hostess attitude and The Grinch (the grumpy version) to accept waves of emotions ranging from anxiety to grief to joy. While the ebb and flow of emotions may not always be pleasurable, the emotions remain my experience and I accept my ability to regulate them through acknowledgement and perspective – I will never be perfect, and holiday grief is normal for me since the loss of my mother. However, I also revel in holiday memories and love sharing her traditions with my son. By managing expectations and accepting experiences as they come, we might successfully regulate our perception of stress as related to holiday events and activities.

Managing expectations and attending to perceptions addresses our awareness and response to holiday stress. However, this may not reduce or change sources of stress – the driveway still has to be shoveled, White Elephant gifts purchased, and that second cousin is still coming to dinner. Thankfully, there are practical ways to cope with and minimize stress. The following are some options to address stress and potentially improve the holidays.

  1. Experience the feels: Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience your emotions. Holidays come with a variety of emotions, and it is normal for our emotions to change. Take time to express your emotions.
  2. Connect with others: If the holidays bring feelings of loneliness or isolation, try reaching out to your community. Consider community activities, volunteer opportunities, online social groups, or virtual events.
  3. It is okay to say "no": Set emotional and physical boundaries. Setting boundaries for when you say "yes" versus when you say "no" helps to reduce feeling overwhelmed, resentful, or anxious. Remember others feel that same pressure to say yes, too, and family and friends will understand if you need to bow out of an event or cannot participate in a holiday project.
  4. Stick to a budget: The holidays can get quite expensive so be careful not to dig a financial hole by overspending. Consider developing a holiday budget early and stick to it. Get creative and talk with family members or friends about how to share holiday costs such as family spending limits, homemade gifts, joint gift exchanges, or focusing on events, traditions, or activities rather than gifts.
  5. Plan and strategize: Determine, ahead of time, specific days for holiday activities or tasks such as shopping, cooking/baking, cleaning, and activities with family and friends, and consider delegating tasks!
  6. Emphasize self-care: One of the first things to do when stress increases is self-care. Try to stay on your normal sleep schedule, monitor eating habits, and get regular exercise. Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant and contains a ton of calories. Be sure to drink plenty of water or try herbal teas or other alternatives.
  7. Try relaxation strategies: Be sure to find time specifically to relax. Practice prioritizing 15 minutes of alone time to unwind or engage in an activity just for you. Some ideas to consider might include:
    1. Taking a walk
    2. Listening to music
    3. Practicing deep breathing
    4. Reading a book
    5. Meditation or yoga practice
    6. Creative expression (i.e., drawing, writing, painting)
    7. Practice guided imagery or visualization.
  8. Talk to a professional if needed: Even with our best efforts we can become overwhelmed. You might find yourself experiencing noticeable changes in mood such as anxiety, sadness, irritability, or hopelessness, changes in physical health or behaviors (i.e., insomnia, persistent physical complaints), and difficulty maintaining normal activities (i.e., hygiene, routine, chores). If these feelings or behavior changes are persistent, please consult with your medical provider or a mental health professional. The Psychological Health Resource Center is an invaluable resource as well. Services are available 24/7 by phone, online chat, or email to service members, veterans, family members, clinicians, commanders, or anyone with a question about psychological health in the military. The holiday season brings a myriad of emotions, experiences, and unique stressors both positive and difficult. Through management of our perceptions of stress, our expectations, and our application of coping strategies it is possible to make the holidays a time of enjoyment rather than dread. This year, if holiday stress is as predestined as Grandma's fruitcake, attend to your perceptions, own your experiences (stressful or not), and choose to use or respond to that stress adaptively. Who knows, you might find yourself humming along to those holiday classics or decorating cookies with a jolly pep in your step.

How to Cope with Holiday Stress poster

References:

  1. Greenberg, A., & Berktold, J. (2016, December 16). Holiday stress. American Psychological Association. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.
  2. Crum, A. J., Jamieson, J. P., & Akinola, M. (2020). Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion, 20(1), 120–125. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000670
  3. Friedman, H. S., & Kern, M. L. (2010). Contributions of Personality to Health Psychology. In J. M. Suls, K. W. Davidson, & R. M. Kaplan (Eds.), Handbook of Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine (pp. 102–119). Chapter, Guilford Press.
  4. Wersebe, H., Lieb, R., Meyer, A. H., Hofer, P., & Gloster, A. T. (2018). The link between stress, well-being, and psychological flexibility during an acceptance and commitment therapy self-help intervention. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 18(1), 60–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2017.09.002
Last Updated: August 26, 2022
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