Dealing With Holiday Stress

“Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet.” – Anonymous

It is easy to get all worked up over the collection of seasonal tasks like gift buying and wrapping, writing and mailing cards, baking, and the countless other deadlines surrounding the holidays.  If the holidays are stressful for you, trust me, you are not alone.  Holiday stress seems to affect a majority of people these days.  You work so very hard all year long and the last thing you want, or need, is to get stressed at the holidays.

According to the American Institute of Stress (, more than 110 million Americans take medication for stress related causes each and every week. When the holidays come along, people already prone to stress often find themselves feeling blue and even more stressed out than usual.  For those who do not ordinarily feel stressed, the holidays can still mess with our lives.  So what can we do?  Plan for stress just like you plan ahead for any calamity you want to avoid.

But first, just what is holiday stress?  Simply put it is the stress you feel when you are preparing for a holiday, or the stress experienced while on a holiday vacation.   The more challenging question to address is “Why?”.  Why do we, or at least so very many of us, get so stressed at the holidays?  There are several factors which can trigger holiday stress, and the following is just a sampling.

  • If you have not allowed yourself a weekend away, or any meaningful time off for an entire year, there is a good chance you are going to be really stressed by the time you get to the holiday.  You have worked yourself to the bone. You are tired, run down, and need a break.  The holiday means everything to you: rest, relaxation, fun, and recuperation.  You therefore put a lot of emphasis on the holiday break being perfect.  If anything goes even the slightest bit wrong the tendency is to get really aggravated.  We often carry such high levels of stress into the holiday that we are very likely to have an incredibly stressful time.
  • The temptation during the holidays is to do lots of things, catch up on chores, and be busy.  Unfortunately, you end up replicating the busy and frenzied life you have been leading the rest of the year.  Overextending yourself can create huge levels of stress.  Give considerable thought to what you are capable of and what do you really want?  Then, choose your commitments carefully (e.g. travel, etc.) remembering what it is that you need and want.
  • You work so hard, and such long hours, during the year that you do not get to see or spend as much time with your family as you would like.  Now suddenly you are living on top of each other.  For many, this in itself can be highly stressful.  Add to this the family get-togethers that can, at times, be somewhat traumatic, and you have a recipe for family induced holiday stress.
  • If you are traveling for the holiday how often do you pack at the last minute?  How often do you forget something or get really burned out because you have been in such a rush?  This stress again is carried into your holiday and becomes holiday stress.  Remembering that change itself can be stressful, going to a new environment, or if traveling outside the country, a new language and culture, can add even more stress to someone who is already on the verge of exhaustion.

The holiday season is a challenge unto itself. We tend to stay up too late, spend too much money, and worry about minor issues until we are half-crazy (or sometimes more than half).  Some of us feel sad because we do not have partners or close families to celebrate with.  Others get tense at the prospect of family events.  According to a recent Consumer Reports poll “crowds and long [shopping] lines” are by far what the majority of people dread most about the holiday time of year.  Surprisingly, this same poll also estimates that some 35 million Americans actually hate “having to be nice” during the holidays.  In their survey people were asked what (if anything) they dread most about the holidays.  A stunning 90 percent noted at least one thing that they stress over during the end of year revelry.  So, how can we enjoy the holidays instead of getting so stressed that we cannot wait for them to be over?

As with all stress relief, holiday stress management truly does start, and end, with you.  Try to clearly identify exactly what it is you are anxious about.  Is it financial?  Is it family?  Ask yourself: Is your situation a small, medium or large problem?  How upset do you want to get over it?  For how long?  Look at the possibilities around you, not the limitations. And, keep your focus on what is meaningful to you.  If you have a religious tradition or spiritual practice, now is a good time to revitalize it.  If the holidays are about relationships for you, put them first, before presents or celebrations.

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Try not to worry about things out of your control.  If you cannot effect change in a situation (it is not under your control) do not waste the energy, or time, trying to do so.
  • Maintain a positive attitude.  Although it sounds trite a positive attitude at the holidays can truly make the challenges you face, and the people around you, easier to deal with.
  • Stress can be contagious.  Do not spread or catch it.  If you are frenetic the people around you are more apt to get that way as well.  If you take a deep breath and calm down you can set a better tone for everyone around you.  The flip side of that is to take a break from people who are stressing you out.
  • Rest. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep each day.  Tired people have poor judgment and bad moods. They are also more apt to eat and drink too much.
  • Exercise. A few extra minutes of exercise a day can benefit your overall health.  Exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety. And you can make a difference to your health regime by adding just 10 minutes of exercise to your daily routine
  • If you need to grieve, give yourself permission to do so.  Holidays can be extremely difficult if you have lost someone close to you, or your job.
  • Eat healthy nutritional food. Decrease the amount of fat and sugar you eat.  Nutrition can play a big part in reducing stress.  Lucy Gilles-Khouri, Director of Dean/St. Mary’s Healthworks at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, says, “The holidays can play havoc with our health.  In winter we tend to crave fats and sweets, but ironically, the more fat and sugar we eat, the less energy we have, and the more stressed and run down we feel.  When our bodies aren’t operating at peak efficiency, we feel stressed, and our immune systems aren’t operating at the level they should be.”
  • Make sure you do what your body, mind and soul need not just what others want or expect of you.  Allow others that same space.  By having some time out to explore on your own or do nothing at all can make the time you spend with your loved ones much more pleasurable.

As with most things, prevention is far better than treatment.  So, in the future, work diligently in dealing with your stress throughout the year rather than just at the holidays.  Be kind, gentle and caring to yourself all year long.  Take weekends away or days off during the year where you feed your soul.  By doing so, next time you get to the holidays you are ready to make the most of it.

Those perfect holiday scenes on TV and the shopping ads, where stunning men buy their gorgeous wives diamonds, smiling children have perfect manners, and the dog never jumps on the guests, are actually created by crews of professional set designers working with top models and actors, and big budgets.  We, however, live in the real world.  The world that contains all the trials, tribulations, and the stress that goes along with it.  So, be kind to yourself.  Aim for the best you can manage.  Keep your expectations realistic and well grounded.  And, use your common sense to cope, thus helping ensure a healthy mind and healthy future.  HAPPY HOLIDAYS!