Stress and the Holidays

Let’s face it, the holidays can be stressful! From fighting your way through packed malls to the pressure of fulfilling different family engagements it’s normal to feel overwhelmed.

Stress is a word often tossed around but when you break it down all it comes down to is a balance between coping resources and the demands that you are dealing with. Think about it like a scale. When the resources you have match the demands of what you’re experiencing in life then you won’t experience stress. However, when the demands start adding up and it gets to be too much for your coping resources to handle then we start to experience stress and have feelings such as feeling overwhelmed.

Thankfully, there are easy ways to rebalance this scale and help you have good mental health throughout this holiday season.


  1. Do less, enjoy more

More often than not we go overboard to please others during the holidays. Piling on too many things can be an easy way to get overwhelmed and not enjoy the things that we are doing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to cancel plans, but learning when and how to say no can save a lot of headache!

Take care of yourself by saying no at least once.

Think about what you actually enjoy and try to cut out at least one obligation that brings you more stress than enjoyment. Figure out which aspects of the holidays are most meaningful to you and prioritize accordingly to help simplify the holidays and minimize stress.

  1. Challenge tradition: It’s okay to change things that aren’t bringing you happiness

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and keep doing the same things year after year, but if your holiday traditions are causing more stress than happiness it’s time to do something different!

If you enjoyed the holidays differently this year, what would happen? Your gut feeling might be: Disaster! The holidays just wouldn’t be the same!

If you move past that initial reaction, what would actually happen? It may be overlooked entirely. Maybe a family member would be annoyed. Is that really such a big deal? Could you make it up to them later a supper later in the year?

The key is to be conscious about what you’re doing instead of automatically doing the same things just because that’s how you’ve always done it and determine what you can live without.

  1. Forget perfection: Life gets messy and that’s okay!

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect in order to enjoy your holidays. Isn’t that a weight lifted off your shoulders already?

  1. Pick your battles.

Take pressure off yourself by allowing things to be okay as they are and delegate tasks instead of trying to do everything yourself. Instead of taking on the responsibility of preparing an entire meal alone, ask everyone to bring a dish. If you feel that hosting an event at your home is too much, don’t feel obligated to entertain relatives and friends – maybe going out to a restaurant together allows everyone to catch up but takes the hosting responsibilities off of yourself.

  1. Be gentle with yourself

Sometimes the holidays don’t feel like “the very best time of the year.” Dealing with loss on top of the other holiday stressors can be really difficult. If you’ve experienced a loss holiday traditions can bring back memories of when that person used to share those activities with you. A change in tradition can be especially helpful in the case of a recent loss.

Even the fact that the holidays are devoted to spending time with friends and family can be triggering and bring up emotions such as regret and sadness. Try not to judge yourself for experiencing these emotions and be gentle with yourself.

Many people experience feelings of grief and loss throughout the holidays. It’s easy (especially now with social media) for others to make it seem like they’re having picture-perfect holidays, filled with never ending smiles, and Pinterest-perfect baking but remind yourself that these are only the moments they’re choosing to post and oftentimes there’s more going on behind the scenes.

  1. Take time for yourself: Find a way to have even 15 minutes of something you enjoy

Setting aside time for yourself is another great way to cope with stress during the holidays. With so much happening, you might not feel like you have a moment alone but it’s important to make time for yourself to take a breath and clear your mind.

Making time for activities you enjoy can help you juggle family obligations, social events, and holiday shopping. Even spending as little as 15 minutes alone can make a world of difference.  Ideas of quick relaxation activities could be things like reading a book, taking a long bath or shower, or taking a walk around the block.

  1. Keep up your daily routine as much as possible

The inevitable feeling of racing from event to even and feeling disorganized or unprepared can add a lot to levels of stress during the holidays. Sticking to our daily routines is difficult but especially important during the holidays because of the additional demands on our time.

A daily routine takes this type of stress away by eliminating the guess work. Habits are literally mental shortcuts in our brain that allow us to perform daily activities with less cognitive capacity required.

  1. Walk away the worries… literally

I know, I know. How many times have you heard this one? Most people know that exercise benefits their mental (as well as physical) health but just can’t find the time to work it into their schedules. The trick is to keep is simple! It doesn’t have to be an intense workout to benefit your mental health.

30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week… that’s not so bad!

Other things you likely do at least 1 ½ hours week:

  • Check Facebook or other social media
  • Respond to emails
  • Stress about how stressed you are

Try simple things to incorporate more activity into your day. Heading to the mall? Try to park further away from the door than you usually do to work in an extra bit of walking.

Going for a walk outside gives you double the benefits! Vitamin D is what we get from sunlight that helps produce the feel-good hormone serotonin. During the winter months we don’t receive as much of this naturally from sunlight because the days are shorter. An extreme form of the effects from the change in seasons results in seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which impacts millions of Canadians every year. Spending time outdoors or near a window can help you feel more energized and ease SAD symptoms.

  1. Take back control by changing “have tos” to “want tos”

We often feel out of control during the holidays and are at the mercy of our relatives or steamrolled by the force of all of the things we “have to” do. Family holiday obligations can be overwhelming. The key is to take some control over the holidays instead of letting them control you by changing the way you think about things.

Now you’re likely thinking that it can’t be that easy, but try it! Tell yourself the following two sentences:

“I have to go to the mall today”

Vs. “I would like to go to the mall today in order to finish my shopping, and it’s okay if this is moved to tomorrow”

Did you notice the difference?

“Have to” “Need to” “Must” and “Should” statements cause a lot of unnecessary pressure. Changing to phrases like: “Want to” “Would like to” “It would be nice if” take off the pressure and make activities about things that you want to engage in instead of having everything feel like an obligation.

  1. Be realistic in your expectations

The only way we can be disappointed is if we had expectations that weren’t met. We often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and are so busy worrying about whether something is perfect that we forget to enjoy the experience. Setting realistic expectations can help minimize some of the pressure and possibility of disappointment.

For example, if the stress you’re experiencing stems from a deeper history of family conflict it often isn’t realistic or helpful to think that these big underlying issues will resolve themselves over the holiday season. Sure, it’s supposed to be a season of forgiveness and good will but it may be better for your own mental wellbeing to confront difficult issues with family and friends during a less stressful time of year.

  1. Give back and help others

There are many ways to give back to our communities during the holidays (as well as all year round!). Despite being a joyful and upbeat time of year, there is still a lot of sadness and loneliness. Knowing that you contributed to your community and helped better the day of someone else can be great for your mental wellness. Finding a way to give back to the community improves mood and can also take away the focus away from ourselves.

Stopping for a moment to talk to a lonely neighbor can boost your mood. Taking the time to write someone a holiday card from the heart can have surprising benefits. Even taking the time to tell someone that you appreciate them can mean a lot to them and leave you feeling better!


This post is also available in: frFrançais (French)

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