How Can I Cope with Holiday Stress?

December 8, 2014

Although Christmas and other holidays are associated with pleasant times, they also can be a major source of stress in people’s lives. Indeed, surveys show that 30% or so of people report increased stress during the holidays, while very few report less stress. Dr. Barbopoulos gives some useful advice on CTV’s Morning Live show here.

A first step in coping with holiday stress is to understand better why the holidays are stressful.

Why the holidays are stressful

Holidays can add to our stress levels for many reasons. Not all reasons will be relevant to everyone, but most of us will be affected by some of the stressors that go with the holidays. Moreover, these added stressors may come on top of an already stressful life. We don’t all get to ignore the stressors of work or regular family life, for example, just because it is the holiday season. Indeed, just a little added stress may strain our ability to cope if we are already facing substantial stress in other aspects of our lives, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

A major reason for increased stress is that holidays are often associated with additional demands on our time and energies. There is much to do preparing for dinners and other special events. We have to find time for shopping, socializing, and decorating our homes. The house may need cleaning more than usual or kids may have special requirements for school. It simply may take more time to do everyday activities like going to the grocery store. As many tasks associated with Christmas fall on women, they may be particularly affected by these increased demands.

In contrast to increased social demands, holidays may remind some people of their loneliness, perhaps because they have few strong personal relationships at the present time or because distance keeps them away from loved ones. Being alone can contrast with the general image of Christmas as a time for family and friends, which can intensify the negative emotions.

Holidays can also be stressful because they are sometimes associated with unpleasant memories or events. The holidays can remind us of loved ones we have lost, or may require social interactions with people we have been in conflict with or had other unpleasant interactions. The special nature of the holidays may make it more difficult to avoid such thoughts and interactions, and indeed the general joy of the season can contrast with our negative emotions, making them even more intense than they would otherwise be.

Money can also be a major source of stress during the holidays. People who are already struggling financially or just getting by may feel overwhelmed by the added financial demands associated with the holidays. Perhaps we cannot afford the gifts that our partners or children would like, or we are unable to host a family social event without straining the bank. Many Canadians already have high levels of debt and simply cannot afford to borrow more. Disagreements about financial stresses also contribute much to negative interactions between partners struggling with competing desires.

Coping with holiday stress

There certainly appear to be lots of reasons for the increased stress so many of us experience during holidays like Christmas. Happily, there are also lots of things we can do to reduce the added stress.

Try to focus on the positive and not dwell excessively on negative aspects of the holidays. Remember the positive interactions with family and friends and how much pleasure so many people experience over the holidays, including yourself. If positive experiences are lacking, think about ways to create them, whether it is participating fully in social events with family or at Church, volunteering with organizations, or enjoying an evening out. Be creative about finding opportunities to have a good time!

It also helps to prevent unnecessary stress if people are realistic about what they can achieve during the holidays. Learn to say “no” when asked to take on tasks that are unreasonable or could be better done by others with fewer demands on their plate. Being realistic also means keeping in mind that unexpected events interfere with even the best of plans; people get sick, cars break down, and promises are broken. So be sure to be generous when thinking about how long it will take to complete some task. And also be realistic about your own capacities; perhaps an extremely organized person could take on a specific task, but are you that organized?

There are a variety of important coping skills that can help us deal with holiday stress. One of the most important is to relax, something often easier said than done. Effective relaxation requires first that you have learned ways to relax, to reduce the negative bodily sensations and thoughts associated with stress. Perhaps exercise or yoga works for you, or meditative practices like controlled breathing, deep muscle relaxation, or calming music and imagery. Effective relaxation also benefits from daily practice. Do not wait until you are stressed to try and learn how to relax; rather, learn how to relax and practice it often so that you have mastered the ability to relax when it is needed. Finally, relaxation requires that you take some time for yourself perhaps especially when things are the most chaotic. When you start to feel overwhelmed, then your needs are more important than whatever else is happening.

Another important way to cope with holiday stress is to accept the negative emotions and thoughts that you experience. It is not necessary to suppress or act on these negative experiences. Instead, you can acknowledge that they exist, that they may be a natural consequence of events in your life, and that they do not need to dictate how you respond. Understanding and accepting negative psychological states is a fundamental element in mindfulness treatment programs.

Take advantage of social supports. Too many of us try not to burden others with our troubles, but the reality is that most people benefit from leaning on others in times of trouble, and people who give us social support also find it rewarding. So rather than keeping everything bottled up inside, perhaps eventually reaching a boiling point, it is good to be forthright with our family and friends and let them know that we are struggling and need their support. But do give some thought to whether the person you are reaching out to is likely to help rather than perhaps make matters worse (e.g., by focusing on their own troubles).

Humans are generally quite resilient but at times we may need more specialized professional help with our negative emotions and life’s stressors. Recognize when your negative emotions and thoughts (e.g., anxiety, depression,) are having a damaging impact on your enjoyment of life and your ability to function effectively at home or work, or in your relationships. Then it may be time to seek professional help, especially if you find yourself wondering whether you can actually carry on. There are many services available to people in Winnipeg and other locations, including licensed clinical psychologists.


Although the holidays can be a source of added stress for various reasons, most of us are able to cope and enjoy the positive aspects of the Christmas season. For those of us who struggle with negative thoughts and emotions around the holidays, however, there are ways to avoid and reduce the stress. We just need to take advantage of our natural resilience and strengthen our coping strategies.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


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