5 Helpful Tips to Cope With Holiday Stress (and Prevent It in the First Place)


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When Andy Williams sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” there was talk of jingle bells, mistletoe, and good cheer—with nary a traffic delay, well-intentioned mother-in-law, or looming credit card bill in sight. We’re all supposed to be feeling downright joyful this time of year, right? 

Well, that's not necessarily the case. In fact, the holidays can be extremely stressful, as proven by a 2019 OnePoll study. It found that a whopping 88 percent of Americans view the holiday season as the most stressful period of the year. The mounting to-dos, gift expenses, feelings of inadequacy, social anxiety, pesky perfectionism, and pure exhaustion can creep up on anyone, leaving you with a mood that’s far from jolly.

“We experience acute stress during the holidays in large part because of the pressure to live from the outside in, shapeshifting ourselves to meet external standards of the good life,” says Chanel Dokun, therapist, certified life planner, cofounder of therapy practice Healthy Minds NYC, and author of Life Starts Now: How to Create the Life You’ve Been Waiting For. She adds that this can often include comparing ourselves to others to see if our holiday experience is as shiny as theirs, or drowning in opportunity overload where we feel compelled to be a part of all the options presented to us during the season. 

And if you’re already dealing with an uptick in stress or struggling with a mental health condition, the holidays might magnify it, says Courtney Lutkus, co-owner and event planner at Simply Radiant Events in California. “There are a lot of stressors in life without the holiday season—unfortunately, the holidays can be triggering and make it worse.”

What Can Cause Holiday Stress?

It can be helpful to identify these holiday-related triggers so you can deal with them as they come, leaning on the expert tips that follow so you can hopefully enjoy a more balanced, content, and peaceful holiday season.

Trigger #1: Social Event Overload

“The holidays can leave us scattered and frazzled as we bounce from one activity to another, rarely pausing to savor or enjoy the experiences we’re having,” Dokun says. “Also, with our social calendar set by others, we can quickly lose out on valuable time for self-reflection or prioritization of our own needs.”

Lutkus agrees that a surplus of holiday events can be challenging, saying that there can be certain social expectations experienced through work, friends, and extended family. These can be hugely rewarding and fun, but the sheer volume of obligations makes it difficult to strategize and prioritize where you spend your time (and money) and harder to savor quiet moments at home or do just what you want to do. “Plus, there’s the time needed to shop for food and gifts,” she adds.

Trigger #2: Extended Family Time

Even if you love your relatives and enjoy seeing them in evenly distributed amounts throughout the rest of the year, the holidays can make for too much time with extended family. It’s time that can be tied up with pressure, expectations, and lots of unsolicited togetherness. It’s… a lot. And if you have tense relationships with certain family members, this can be detrimental to your stress level as well.

“While spending time with extended family, we’re thrust back into old family systems and may find ourselves returning to previously toxic ways of connecting, unhealed wounds from the past, and simply old versions of ourselves we long thought we’d abandoned,” Dokun says. “This can trigger a crisis of identity or feelings of pressure to conform to patterns we’ve released through the years.” 

Trigger #3: Hosting

If you’re trying to live up to an idealized version of the perfect host and get overwhelmed, you’re likely trying too hard to reach an unrealistic expectation of how to be hospitable, Dokun says, adding, “these ideals can either be imposed on us by others or ourselves,” she says. 

Then there’s the business of attempting to juggle way too many tasks and oversee minute details as you prepare to host, which, as Dokun notes, can stretch the limits of your time management skills. When you agree to host, there’s a lot more to it than you might initially realize. Sure, some people are natural hosts and have always loved it, but for the majority of people hosting is a skill that takes experience and practice to feel comfortable, relaxed, and proficient. “A host is likely to clean their home, shop for food, cook, and clean up afterward,” Lutkus says, not to mention actually hosting the event itself while guests are over.

 Trigger #4: Finances

Every time you get out your credit card throughout the holiday season, you might feel more and more on edge. “With increased spending or the temptation to spend more of our resources, we confront the limits of our financial freedom,” Dokun says. “Lack of financial resources to devote to the activities, gifts, or projects we’d like might cause sadness, disappointment, or regret about past spending habits. Based on our financial state during the holidays, we may also feel anxiety about our general financial well-being heading into the new year.” 

If you’re really feeling down, you may start to feel resentful of the holiday season—or even of the people in your life—that make you feel forced to shop, travel, and spend, when you’d rather be saving up for other personal expenses.

Trigger #5: Lots of Downtime

While time off from work or school over the holidays sounds pleasant enough, it actually can be a sneaky trigger for stress. Dokun says that even though vacation is theoretically supposed to be a “welcomed reprieve” from our normal rhythms, the time off, for some people, can force them to spend more time “in the personal bucket” of their lives. “We often find we’ve been using work to cover over difficult situations at home,” Dokun says. “Some people feel anxious or depressed without work to occupy their time and attention.” 

And then there are some who simply like and rely on their normal routine, which tends to get upended by holiday time off, and they can feel untethered and agitated during this particular time of the year.

Pro Tips to Cope With Holiday Stress

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Reclaim your mornings.

If you’re aching for some quiet time during the holidays—or just more time—Dokun advises doing something called “reclaiming” your mornings. And this is something you can do anytime of year.

“I encourage everyone to develop a daily habit of starting their day with their own voice as the primary driver for how they want to engage the day,” she says. “This is an easy way to pre-schedule ‘me-time’ amid a busy holiday season where you can check in with your own needs, set your own priorities, and move into your day feeling centered and in control.” 

If possible, try to block some time for this on your calendar before the rest of the household wakes up for the day. (P.S., research has found that waking up earlier, even by just one hour, can help boost your mental health and keep depression at bay. If you struggle with low moods during the holiday season, or anytime, a slightly earlier wake-up can be an effective tool to have in your mental-health-care kit.)

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Prep for as much as you can.

When it comes to the holidays, Lutkus is a big fan of being prepared, something that can head off stressful situations at the pass. “It might seem straightforward, but if there’s something you can do weeks in advance, when you have time, do it,” she says. “Those minutes add up too quickly when the time gets closer. If you can buy your nonperishable foods in October or early November, purchase them. If you want to fold your napkins in a pretty way, do it days before [the party] if you have time.” 

For example, when Lutkus is planning events, she makes sure everything is unpackaged ahead of time so décor and other items can be set out right away when the day arrives. Set the table, wrap gifts you’ve already gotten, make up the guest bedroom—whatever you can get out of the way in advance will be a huge help to Future You. And definitely get the family involved! Ask your kids to help you place tea lights in the votives and stick stamps on holiday cards, and ask your spouse to pick up a bag of ice or all-purpose flour next time they’re at the supermarket.

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Accept imperfection.

"Narrow your perfectionism,” Dokun advises. “It’s impossible for every aspect of the holiday season to be ideal. Select one task, activity, or event that really matters to you and focus your energy on maximizing that experience. For example, I’m planning a special Christmas breakfast menu I’ll cook with my 7-year-old son because I cherish our time together in the kitchen. Creating that memory matters to me. I’ll allow the rest of the holiday festivities to be handled or planned by others because they’re secondary to my enjoyment of the season.” 

And remember that cookbooks, design magazines, and decorators' Instagram feeds are all curated, styled, professionally lit, and edited. They are beautiful and fantastic for inspiration—but they are not what real, human life looks like, and you should never compare yourself, your food, your life, or your home to them.

Also, try not to compare this holiday to past holidays, or yourself to past versions of you. Sometimes we think, "Wow, I used to be able to do it all and do it perfectly—what happened to me?" But life changes, our priorities shift, our energy ebbs and flows. Do what you can do right now—and, hey, this version of you can do a lot of things that older versions of you couldn't!

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Skip events in the name of mental health.

Even though Lutkus is an event planner extraordinaire, she knows that everyone has their limit during the holidays. “Know that it’s fine not to attend everything you’re invited to,” she says. “Taking care of your mental health is important, and if you’re not feeling up to attending an event, it’s OK.” 

Give yourself permission and the freedom to choose what works for you, your family, and your mental health this holiday season. Your mind will thank you for it.

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Do some reflecting.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle, you might forget that the holidays additionally mark the end of the year. While you may be busy, Dokun says it’s important to take time to “close out the year gracefully,” something that allows you to reconnect with yourself and start the new year off on the right foot.

If it feels right, “use this season to wrap up projects or complete a life assessment where you reflect on what worked and what didn’t throughout the year,” she says. “Often, our greatest stress comes from attempting to be too [productive] and wanting to jump-start our new-year growth plans. Use the holidays to savor, and then use the beginning of the year to stimulate.”

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