7 Tips to Help With Holiday Stress
Managing Stress and Depression Around the Holidays
Updated November 2023
It’s called “the most wonderful time of the year,” but the holidays can be less than merry for many people. Your emotional health concerns don’t disappear just because it’s the holiday season. In fact, you may find existing issues worsen at this time of year.
“Holiday season can be a joyous time but also quite stressful due to obligations people have, and the prospect of having to schedule and arrange family get-togethers and spending money on gift giving,” says Adnan Arif, MD, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine. “It does not help that daylight saving time makes the days shorter and nights longer, which can lead to a decrease in social communication and an increase in social isolation and ‘cabin fever.’”
While you may often feel pressure to keep spirits up and a smile on your face during the holidays — pressure that can worsen feelings of loneliness and depression — it’s OK to experience a range of emotions during the season. With these helpful tips, you can be more prepared to handle what’s in store.
1. Be realistic with yourself and others.
The holiday season can be long and full of commitments, from parties to year-end meetings. To help manage stress, make a list of what you expect from yourself, what others expect from you and your responsibilities for the holidays. You may want to place them on a calendar to get a feel for what the coming months will look like.
“There is an old saying, ‘You can please some of the people all the time, and you can please all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time,’” says Dr. Arif. “Keep that in mind and set realistic goals and expectations for your family get-togethers, obligations and gift giving.” Get comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to do everything yourself, and everything doesn’t have to be perfect.
2. Keep your healthy habits.
Maintaining healthy habits during the holiday season is one of your best defenses against stress. This means getting enough sleep, eating well — even at holiday parties — and staying physically active. “What is good for the heart is good for the brain” is an easy way to remember healthy eating and healthy physical activity habits. Fuel your energy levels by adding plant-based foods like salads and roasted veggies, and cutting back on red meat and processed foods.
Also, make sure you getting enough sleep during the season is essential for your health and well-being. “Do not compromise on your sleep. We have a natural biological clock that coincides with natural sunlight. Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night,” says Dr. Arif.
3. Try to go with the flow.
The holidays are a time when not everything may be under your control. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed. Or, there may be times when you feel sad or lonely, and that’s OK. If you’re coping with mental health concerns, they don’t go away just because of the holidays.
“If anxiety or worry feels overwhelming, just try to get through one day at a time. Focus on the things that can be controlled,” advises Dr. Arif. If you’re particularly overwhelmed, talk to an emotional health professional about how to handle everything that is on your plate.
4. Do less.
The spirit of the season can sometimes lead even the most practical people to overcommit their time. When you’re looking at your calendar or to-do list, be fair to yourself. Decide what’s most important to you, and allow yourself to say no to other demands on your time. This goes for traditions as well. It’s perfectly acceptable for your traditions to change over time and to create new traditions to fit the evolving lifestyle of you, your family and friends. If a ritual causes disproportionate stress, consider forming a new one.
“Prioritize your physical and mental health first, and then follow with what is most essential on your priority list,” Dr. Arif suggests.
5. Reach out.
Despite what may seem like an influx of social interactions (trips to the mall, attending big family dinners and back-to-back holiday parties), feelings of loneliness and isolation can spike between October and January. Look for new ways to get social in your community, such as volunteering, or simply reaching out to the people you care about and who care about you.
“Loneliness is depression’s best friend, as I like to say,” explains Dr. Arif. “Try to guard against long periods of social isolation. We can only control the present moment, and we can plan for tomorrow.”
Don’t try to shoulder every holiday task yourself. If you need assistance with decorating, a dish to pass, or picking up something, ask a friend or family member. More than likely, they will be honored that you asked.
6. Get up and get moving.
Maintaining activity in the winter is an essential tool to combat seasonal affective disorder and depression. Make it a point to get at least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise four to five times a week, advises Dr. Arif. He also recommends slow-motion deep breathing to calm your body’s anxiety circuits.
If you have time and are so inclined, check out your local gym. Or, make use of the equipment you have, look up exercise videos online, or strap on your boots and layer up. A brisk winter walk is not only an easy source of exercise when your schedule seems packed, but sunlight offers a feel-good burst of serotonin and can help fight seasonal affective disorder. Furthermore, the rhythm and repetition of walking has a calming effect.
7. Make small adjustments.
The holiday season can seem full of big changes, so focus on little things that can help you relax. Small adjustments that won’t make or break your routine can be the little added boost you need to bring joy back to the holiday season. Dr. Arif recommends limiting time on social media and focusing on connecting in real life with friends, family and yourself.
“Gravitate toward healthier habits involving slowing the mind down,” advises Dr. Arif. “Invest in oneself, such as regular physical activity, picking up hobbies, using art and creativity as an outlet for stress relief, reading a new book, playing a musical instrument, whatever suits you.”
For further support, consider groups such as emotionsanonymous.org (for emotional support resources and online or in-person groups), dbsalliance.org (for support with depression, mood disorder or bipolar disorder), or use the Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741.