Holiday stress: How to cope with the seasonal blues

September 28, 2021 - 12 min read

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What is holiday stress?

What causes holiday stress?

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

9 symptoms of holiday stress

How to cope with — and prevent — holiday stress

Be kind to yourself this holiday

It’s the most wonderful time of the year...right? For many of us, it’s also the most stressful. Holiday stress is one of the most mental health concerns of the end of the year. In fact, a survey on Verywell Mind found that 80% of people described the holidays as at least “somewhat stressful.” But why, and what can you do to bring the magic back?

What is holiday stress?

Holiday stress is the accumulation of mental, physical, and emotional pressure related to the holiday season. At the end of the year, many of us find ourselves battling conflicting feelings, emotions, and priorities. We may be overwhelmed by family and friends, or grieving for loved ones who have passed on. We may be under financial pressure to host dinners, travel, or give the perfect gift. We have our hands full trying to wrap up work commitments while schools are closed for the break. Add in winter weather, seasonal depression, flu viruses, and Christmas music on repeat, and you have the perfect recipe for holiday stress.

What causes holiday stress?

The causes of holiday stress will be different for each individual. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll get through the season without being affected by at least one of of these factors:

Friends and family members (or lack thereof)

Some people dread the holidays and seeing certain family members or friends. There’s the ones you love and miss, and then there’s the ones who always have something snarky to say (ah, the gift of insecurity keeps on giving). However, some people find the holidays really painful for the opposite reason. They may not have close friends and family, or may be reminded of loved ones who have passed away.

Financial stress

Who do you get gifts for, and how much do you spend? Will they notice if you go with the cheaper paper on the custom greeting cards? Is it worth staying with family to avoid paying holiday rates at the hotel? The holidays can bring lots of expenses — foreseen and unforeseen. In addition, depending on where you work, you may be short on hours or, conversely, working overtime.

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Overindulgence

In many cultures, holidays are marked with copious amounts of food (and alcohol). And in all the traditional holiday cookbooks out there, you’d be hard pressed to find a single salad. After several days (or weeks!) of overindulging, you may start to feel a little sluggish and out-of-sorts from the break in your daily routine. A round-the-clock regime of holiday cheer can leave you feeling not-so-jolly.

Cold and flu season

Hugs, kisses, and sharing meals are a great way to get close to others — but you might be spreading more than holiday cheer. Bringing people together indoors from different households (and places) multiplies the odds of catching a virus or other ailment. And a sick family member — especially one that needs a caregiver — can put a damper on everyone’s good time.

Pressure to be perfect

The holidays are an emotionally loaded time. Many families feel the need, for one reason or another, to put together a perfect holiday celebration. They may want to create good memories, make up for less-than-perfect childhood holidays, or show off their success. However, the pressure they put on themselves can complicate an already challenging time.

What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Some individuals experience symptoms of depression as they head into the winter months. This is known as seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While it’s unclear exactly what causes SAD, it’s thought that the shorter days — and subsequent decreased exposure to sunlight — is responsible for the shift in mood. Sunlight is thought to help the body regulate the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that affect how we feel.

Because seasonal affective disorder shares so many traits with other mood disorders (anxiety, hopelessness, irritability, and low mood), it can worsen holiday stress. It can be difficult to know what’s causing your depression, so if you have symptoms of depression, it’s worth reaching out to a professional.

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9 symptoms of holiday stress

Is the holiday hustle feeling more difficult than usual? Here are some signs that you may be experiencing holiday stress:

If you have any of these symptoms — especially if they begin to affect your daily life or relationships — you should reach out to a professional.

How to cope with — and prevent — holiday stress

The nice thing about managing holiday stress is that, unlike other kinds of stress, you know exactly what’s triggering you and when it will end. Unfortunately, knowing that it will be over soon may not make it any easier. Here are some holiday do’s and don’ts that you can use to make the season easier (and cope with the holiday blues when they do arise).

Do:

Plan in advance

What can you take care of before the holiday season starts? Can you clean the house, take an extra vacation day, or visit out-of-town family before the holiday? Shopping for gifts, decorations, wrapping paper, and other holiday staples can be done little by little throughout the months ahead. Think of the things that usually stress you out last minute, and try to plan for them in advance this year.

Ask for help

It’s easy to fall into the “I’ll do it all myself” trap. However, the holiday season is meant to be shared with others. Ask for help with the tasks that normally fall to you. Turn family gatherings into a potluck, teach the kids how to wrap gifts, and (if you can) hire a cleaning service. You can’t do it all — and even if you can, why should you?

Honor your traditions

Whatever your spiritual and cultural background, take time to do something personally meaningful. Connecting to family traditions can be a wonderful way to share what’s important to you. These practices have a way of reminding us what we love about the season and keeping the “other stuff” in perspective.

Take care of yourself

As the saying goes, “Man cannot live on cornbread alone — he needs to go for a run for his soul.” While that’s a broad paraphrase, the sentiment still stands. Keeping up with healthy habits — as much as you can — will make a difference in your mood. If you know your holidays will be a lot of heavy food, heavy conversations, and heavy drinking, find balance and self-care where you can. Make yourself a healthy snack, drink plenty of water, and go to bed early when you can. While everyone’s occupied at holiday parties, see if you can sneak out to the gym or even for a few minutes of mindfulness.

Have fun

It’s easy to forget to enjoy the holidays, but try to slow down and savor the moment. Put all the responsibilities on the backburner and say yes to something fun. Have a snowball fight, play a game with the kids, or watch a feel-good movie — anything that helps you de-stress is good.

Don’t:

Expect everything to be perfect

Spoiler alert: it won’t be. Something will get burned, someone will be late, and the store will be out of some critical ingredient. It’s fine. Years from now, you’ll remember the way you felt, not the way it all turned out. Understanding that "things happen" will go a long way to keeping your stress level in check.

Wing it with your finances

It’s very, very easy to spend money during the holidays — and, in fact, there are entire industries banking on the fact that you will. Don’t go into the season without a plan. Set a budget for your spending, know what you’re planning to buy (and for whom), and try to avoid using credit cards if you can. It’s easy to get caught up in the never-ending sales and deals, but you’ll appreciate your restraint in the new year.

Overextend yourself

For a couple of months, there’s always a party, a sale, somewhere to go, or some new gadget to buy. Guard your yes. Try not to take on stressful projects (like a renovation or volunteer assignment). If you do say yes, decide what else you’re saying no to instead. You can also substitute lower-lift ways to contribute. For example, bring a dessert from your favorite bakery instead of making it from scratch.

Isolate yourself

Even if you feel like you’re alone during the holidays, you’re not. A study showed that one in nine Americans spends the holidays alone. That’s quite a few people. Try reaching out and host a “Friendsgiving,” or start a new tradition. It will be cheering and remind you that you’re loved and celebrated.

Underestimate your depression

If you feel like something’s off, reach out for help. The winter holidays bring multiple stressors, which can exacerbate underlying mental and physical health conditions. You don’t have to just grin and bear it. You can — and should — reach out if you’re feeling down, overwhelmed, or stressed about the holidays.

Be kind to yourself this holiday

The holidays are a time to show the people in your life how much they mean to you — and that includes you, too. No matter what’s going on, take the time to prioritize your own well-being. Set boundaries, say no, get plenty of rest, and reflect on what it is that you need from yourself (not just what everyone else needs from you). With a little planning and luck, you can give yourself the gift of a holiday without stress.

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Published September 28, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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