Updated: Nov 2
Holiday stress. There. We said it. Hallmark wants to paint this beautiful picture of what the holidays are "supposed" to look like, but for many people, all this does is create unrealistic expectations for how the holiday season should go. The reality is the challenges you're facing now and the ones that will pop up during the holidays probably aren't going to wrap themselves up nicely in just under an hour and a half.
So, let's leave the unrealistic solutions to the movies and look at some real solutions on how to handle stress and anxiety during the holidays.
Why are we more stressed during the holidays?
The "traditional holiday" image usually looks like this: beautiful decorations, festive music, delicious food, thoughtful gifts, and time spent laughing and catching up with family and friends. It sounds nice, right?
But, for many, the holidays look more like this:
Perfectionism kicks in while trying to decorate the house to be Pinterest-perfect and Instagram ready
A long list of ingredients to buy from the store and cookies and sweets that demand time on your calendar for baking
Holiday programs and parties that need to squeeze into your already jam-packed schedule
Feeling overstuffed and stressed about how much you're eating that you don't usually eat
Stressed out hours scrolling Amazon trying to think of the perfect gift for your mother-in-law who never appreciates what you buy her anyway
Sleepless nights wondering how to make the paycheck stretch to cover all the extra holiday spending and fear of the bills that will show up in January
Anxiety growing over the conversations you know will come up during the family party, like politics, your love life, and 20 questions about your personal life from Aunt So-and-So
You likely identified with at least a few of the points above. They're common holiday stressors for many people, and they're part of the reason people end up dreading the holiday season regardless of what the songs and Hallmark say.
Here are some of the reasons the holidays can feel so stressful and what you can do to address them.
A lot of extra things tend to need attention during the holidays and the end of the year. This can include fun things like holiday parties and not-so-fun things like year-end reports at work. You may feel like you're being pulled in a million different directions and just want a moment to relax.
You invest a lot of time into trying to pull everything off and then don't enjoy it yourself because you're too busy trying to keep up with all of it.
What can you do about your busy schedule?
Practice prioritizing and saying "no" when you need to. You are one person and can't do it all without it negatively impacting some part of your life.
If you are looking to have a less stressful holiday season, sit down right now and set your priorities. What are the things that are most important to you and your family? Once you have a clear understanding of what those things are, everything else needs to fit in around them.
If there isn't time for something that's not one of your priorities, you'll have to say "no" instead of adding it to your calendar. It's common to feel some anxiety around saying "no" when others ask us to do things or show up to certain events, but it's not your job to do everything that everyone else wants you to do.
Practice saying "no" while you're alone so you'll be ready to say it when you're asked to do something you need to decline.
Your unrealistic expectations
Having unrealistic expectations can set the holiday up for failure before it even begins. No holiday is going to be perfect. Accepting and embracing this now can help you avoid disappointment over the next few months. But that doesn't mean you need to "plan for the worst." You simply need to set realistic expectations for yourself and others.
The tricky part is it's really easy to not even know what your expectations are. You might never have sat down and thought specifically about what you were expecting from the holiday season. You may not even realize you have unrealistic expectations.
Take time to sit down and think. Reflect on the questions:
What do I want the holidays to look like?
What am I counting on other people doing during the holidays?
To feel happy with the holidays, what do I want to happen?
What am I planning on doing during the holidays?
The answers to these questions will help give you a clear picture of what you expect from yourself and others. Then, you can use your answers to see where you may need to make adjustments to your expectations.
Demands from others
Even if you have realistic expectations for yourself, others may have different expectations for you. Your parents may expect you to show up for a family gathering, but you would rather go to the event your friend is hosting. Your kids might have a long list of gifts they're hoping to get, but you know the budget isn't going to be able to cover it this year.
The demands from others can feel stressful. In addition, you may feel stress and anxiety over the demands you think others have.
For example, you may think that your parents will be mad and disappointed if you don't host the holiday dinner. But in reality, they may be very understanding of you not wanting to this year. It's easy to think we know what others are thinking and even hold pre-arguments in our heads.
If you feel pressure from the demands of others, learning to set healthy boundaries can be helpful. Your boundaries help you determine what you will and won't allow in your life. If you need help and support in learning how to set boundaries, one of our licensed mental health professionals at The NEST can help.
A lot of additional expenses come along with the holiday season. This can include things like additional food and drink, gifts, and travel. Inflation is adding to the financial strain for many this year. In fact, according to an annual holiday retail survey, residents in the Twin Cities are expecting to spend $1,463, or 20% more, on holiday gift-giving in 2022. And because of inflation, the survey found that people are expecting to buy fewer gifts.
If your budget has been tight throughout the year, this can be a major source of stress.
Finances are another area where it's helpful to set realistic expectations and boundaries during the holiday season. You can look for ways to cut expenses while also looking for creative ways to show your friends and family you care without going over budget. Overspending during the holidays can bring added stress in the New Year when the bills start to show up.
There are also many retailers and side hustles that are looking for extra help during the holiday season. If you are looking to earn a little extra money during the holidays and have the bandwidth in your schedule to do so, this can be a good way to relieve financial stress.
Holiday stress relief tips
Now that we've addressed some of the major causes of holiday stress and anxiety, here are some additional things you can do to protect your mental health this holiday season.
Take breaks when you need them
All of the "together time" may feel like a lot to handle during the holidays. And if you are working remotely and on a computer all day, you may feel like you're on sensory overload with the holiday music, lights, and smells.
Make sure you take breaks in a way that makes you feel restful. Go for a walk. Sit in a dark, quiet room for 10 minutes to meditate or enjoy the silence. Curl up on the couch and read a book instead of going to the party if you're feeling overwhelmed.
Remember to breathe
Deep slow breathing can help reduce stress and anxiety's physical and mental symptoms. If your body is tight with tension, you may notice that you are taking shallow quick breaths. This can lead to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Taking time to breathe slowly and deeply can help to stop these symptoms.
You can also combine your deep breathing with meditation or mindfulness to experience added stress relief.
Self-care activities tend to be the first things to go when we have busy schedules. We swap healthy dinners for quick and easy. We cut out our exercise routine in order to squeeze in one more to-do list item. And we stay up late trying to cross everything off that list.
When we do this, we're cutting the things out of our schedule that help us to feel our best. Self-care activities are the things that help you rest, relax and recharge, so you have the energy and attention you need to not just get through your day but enjoy it. Self-care activities have a positive impact on our mental health.
So, while they may be the easy things to cross off our calendar when we get busy, resist that temptation. You may need to adjust during busier seasons, but don't stop with self-care altogether.
Let others help
Don't be afraid to ask for help during the holidays and delegate tasks to others. If you're hosting a holiday meal, turn it into a potluck and allow everyone to bring a dish to share. You don't have to do all the cooking and baking on your own.
Are your kids going to decorate the cookies the same way you would? Probably not. But they are going to taste just as good, and you can create fun memories by making them together.
Don't stress about the "traditions"
Many people have traditions that are connected with the holidays. Traditions can be fun ways to create lasting memories, but they can also be a source of stress. Don't just do something for the sake of doing it. Take time to reevaluate your traditions to see what still works for you in 2022. If you need to hit pause on a tradition or scrap it completely, don't feel guilty.
Get support if you're struggling
Whether you're struggling with stress and anxiety over the holidays or it's something you struggle with regularly, our team of licensed therapists at The NEST Clinic in Stillwater, MN, are here to help. We want to help you find your center again and create balance in your life, even during the busy holiday season.