Finding Your Joy in the Midst of Holiday Stress

It’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year, but is it? Emotions are more intense during the holidays than other times throughout the year, and celebrating with family and friends brings about a diverse range of feelings. While many people experience joy and happiness during the holiday season, others experience a completely different set of emotions including stress, sadness, depression, loneliness and fatigue. 

Holiday Stress

Nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling ‘extreme stress’ come holiday time, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Holiday stress statistics show that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a ‘lack of time,’ 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a ‘lack of money,’ and 51 percent are stressed out about the ‘pressure to give or get gifts.’ Family drama, busy schedules, navigating unpredictable and chaotic holiday travel, broken relationships, the demand of meeting the expectations of others, and a work-life balance can all lead to holiday stress.

The loss of a loved one can also trigger raw emotions, when the absence of a family member around the holiday table is felt deeply. It can alter long standing traditions and set off feelings of isolation and grief. While it’s true the holidays won’t be the same, you can make them different in a meaningful and thoughtful way. Consider redefining your holiday by doing away with traditions and rituals that are meaningless or unpopular and create new ones in their place. Incorporating the essence and memory of your loved one into a new tradition can deepen the way you remember them and ensure they will be a part of holiday celebrations to come. Here are some great ideas to help get you started.

Another mostly unrecognized problem that comes with the holiday season is actually a by-product of the seasons changing from fall to winter. As the hours of daylight become shorter, the skies grow a bit greyer, and the weather turns much colder, many of us spend more time indoors. For some, these changes trigger a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder. Treatment options, such as light therapy, are available to help with this form of seasonal depression, but consulting with a behavioral health specialist and developing a tailored treatment plan specific to your needs may be the best approach.

Recognizing Mental Health Conditions Around the Holidays

It’s important to recognize some of the mental health issues that put people at greater risk during the holiday season:

  • Anxiety, panic attacks, and being on edge more than usual
  • Depression
  • Addiction issues, including eating disorders and increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • Mood changes
  • ADHD
  • Short temper/anger
  • Periods of mania


National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays. If you or a loved one have these challenges year-round, it’s important to be aware of the heightened triggers this time of year. The good news is, there are a multitude of different ways to manage the stress of the holidays, and many are within your control.  

Tips for Managing Stress and Depression During the Holidays

Set boundaries. Relationships are tested during the holidays, especially when it comes to families. School functions, neighborhood cookie swaps, and Secret Santa exchanges at work can be mentally and physically taxing. It’s OK to say no. Don’t feel bad about declining an invitation or leaving an event early. Do a needs assessment, based on the physical, emotional, and financial toll it will have on you, then pick and choose the things that bring you the most happiness. You should never feel guilty about setting boundaries. Just make sure you are communicating your wishes clearly, and give people enough advanced notice about your decisions.

Be smart with holiday eating. We want to look good and feel great–especially if we’re around people we don’t see often—because we know it’s how we’ll be remembered long after a visit is over. But the temptation of invitingly delicious food and decadent desserts—plus the addition of emotional stress—can lead to overeating and emotional eating (also known as “stress eating”). Know your triggers, and keep some healthy food and snacks handy, monitor your caloric intake, and practice mindful eating. Don’t  judge yourself if you slip up or overdo it. Mindful eating is largely about body kindness and feeling your best, not guilt.

Stay connected… Whether you’re apart from your family, or don’t have much family at all, you don’t have to be alone during the holidays. Invite your close friends to a gathering at your home, or make plans for a coffee date with the people who bring you the most happiness and joy in your life. Can’t meet in person? Set up a group Zoom call and watch your nieces and nephews open their Christmas gifts, or try video chats, texting, or a good old fashioned phone call. Some families host virtual game nights, stream holiday movie watch parties, bake treasured family cookie recipes over Zoom calls, and participate in online Christmas caroling. They’re all great ways to stay connected to family and friends. 

…But limit social media use. Social media’s negative impact on mental health can come in many forms, from triggering self-doubt about body image to causing depression, anxiety, and loneliness. It’s even more important to be mindful of your social media use during the holidays when anxieties are already at an all time high and posts abound with highlight reels of smiling families in matching outfits and Christmas trees surrounded by a mountain of gifts. Unfollow people and pages that don’t make you feel good about yourself or try a social media detox. It will free up your time to do more of the things you love.

Take time for yourself. Take a deep breath. Sometimes, just focusing on your breathing or changing the way you breathe can make a big difference in your overall stress level, calming your mind and your body. If you enjoy reading, crack open a book. Or exercise. Or try mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga, guided imagery, or journaling. Or just take a walk– communing with nature can be quite restorative.

Count your blessings. The act of feeling grateful – and actively appreciating these moments in your life – has been proven to improve physical health, boost mental health, increase empathy and self-esteem, and may even help you sleep better at night. Cultivating gratitude throughout the day helps to build a bank of positive thoughts that your mind can turn to in quiet moments, easing the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Whether it’s being thankful for the hug your child gave you on your way out the door in the morning, or relaxing by the fire while enjoying a hot cup of cocoa, thinking about all the good things that happen in your day can boost your spirits and lower your stress.

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, or depressed  it’s equally important to seek professional help. A behavioral health clinician can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger your emotions and help you create an action plan to address these issues. And if you’re already seeing a therapist, keep up with your appointments. It’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself.


As we gear up for another holiday season, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself and schedule some “you” time to manage and reduce your stress. If you’re looking for more ideas, check out these resources–and make sure to put self-care on your holiday to-do list.

How to Take the Stress Out of the Holidays

How to Navigate Mental Health and the Holidays

APA Holiday Stress Resource Center

Managing the Seemingly Inevitable Holiday Season Stress

Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress for Children (and Parents) 

Managing Holiday Stress Podcast from PediaCast

I wish you peace, happiness and joy this holiday season. And remember to take time for yourself.  You deserve it.

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