9 Causes of Holiday Stress (and How to Manage Them)

9 Causes of Holiday Stress (and How to Manage Them)

What do you do when “the most wonderful time of the year” becomes the most difficult? While this season can be enjoyable, it also comes with the potential to add layers of holiday stress to already-busy lives and worsen existing mental health conditions.

If you’re feeling the pressure of coping with holiday stress, you’re not alone. While holiday movies and social media make it seem like everyone is filled with joy, the data tell a different story. In a report shared by the American Psychological Society (APA), 38 percent of people said they feel more stress during the holidays; only 8 percent said their stress levels decreased during the holidays.

Holiday stress tips

What causes this extra stress during the holidays? Here are nine challenges that often feel overwhelming this time of year, along with holiday stress tips to help you manage them.

1. So many to-dos at work, so little time

There are lots of reasons to take time off work during the holiday season, but work won’t necessarily slow down. This can leave you worried about managing your workload and trying to get time off approved. At the same time, you might find that you have even more than usual on your personal calendar, including spending time with family and friends and honoring cultural expectations and long-held traditions. All of these competing demands can leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed about not having time to get everything done, and those thoughts may spoil the moments when you’re trying to unplug.

Tips for managing holiday stress at work

  • Take time off if possible. Taking time off around the holidays to invest in your other values can help create work-life balance.
  • Talk to your manager ahead of time. Ask about opportunities for adjusting workloads or making flexible arrangements over the holidays, such as remote work or flex schedules.
  • Make your time count. Cook nourishing meals, make time for exercise, and avoid using alcohol or other drugs as a way of managing holiday stress. Notice places in your day where you might be mindlessly spending time on activities that are time-consuming, yet don’t bring you joy or closer to accomplishing your goals, such as scrolling on social media. Consider setting boundaries around these activities to leave more room for work productivity and meaningful personal time.

2. Navigating family conflict

Spending time with loved ones can be one of the greatest joys of the winter holidays. Over half (53 percent) of people surveyed named family time as the best thing about this season. But family time can also breed conflict.

Challenging family dynamics can cause friction between loved ones and cast a shadow over happy gatherings. Some family members might not get along. And holiday stress can make everyone’s fuse a little bit shorter, especially if out-of-town visitors are staying under the same roof for extended periods of time. Even joyous family gatherings can add stress by creating more work for those who are hosting relatives or traveling out of town for gatherings.

Tips to manage family time

  • Set boundaries. Carve out time for yourself and limit activities that may harm your mental health. You don’t need to put other people’s preferences ahead of your needs. Communicate kindly and clearly with loved ones about your boundaries.
  • Make choices that align with your values. You can’t control other people, but you can control your response. Allow your values to guide you through prickly situations.
  • Practice acceptance. When we face difficult situations, we tend to wish things could be different, and this tension can make us even more stressed. Practicing acceptance of what we can’t control helps us cope with negative emotions. Remember, just because you accept something doesn’t mean you have to approve of it or like it—you’re simply acknowledging reality as it is.

3. Struggling with gift-giving, financial strain, or commercialism

When you add up the cost of gifts, decorations, food, and holiday travel, it’s no surprise that nearly half  of people surveyed named financial concerns as their main source of holiday stress. The pressure can weigh especially heavily on women, who are expected to create magical (and often costly) holiday experiences for their families.

Tips to manage financial stress during the holidays

  • Make a budget before the holidays arrive and stick to it.
  • Keep your core values front and center. Chances are, it’s not the gifts or decorations that you find deeply meaningful or memorable, but instead, the time spent with loved ones. Reminding yourself of your values can help you feel centered.
  • Create family traditions that don’t require event tickets or expensive supplies.
  • Cut down on your exposure to ads and commercialism on TV and other media.

4. Struggling with expectations

With work, family, shopping, and preparing for guests or travel, you may feel like you have no time for all the little holiday details you “should” be handling. “A lot of our stress during the holidays can come from the ‘shoulds’—our expectation of what the holidays should look like, how we should feel, and what we should be doing to celebrate,” says Joe Grasso, PhD, Lyra’s senior director of workforce mental health. “But often those expectations can set us up for unhelpful anxiety and unneeded disappointment when things don’t look picture-perfect.”

Tips for finding balance

  • Prioritize the things that are most important to you, and say no to the rest.
  • Set realistic expectations. The imagined “ideal” holiday rarely comes to pass. Focus instead on the people and values that matter to you.
  • Make time for relaxation and exercise. Try deep breathing or meditation to tame your stress during the holidays. Even a brief mindful breathing practice can have a meaningful impact on your stress levels.
  • Plan ahead and make things easier for your future self. Anticipate and guard against your unique holiday stress triggers. For example, if holiday travel stresses you out, create an itinerary ahead of your trip. We often avoid things that are most stressful to us. While this brings us relief in the short term, eventually it catches up with us and makes us more stressed.

5. Grief and loss

For some, a season that was once a source of joy has become a painful reminder of what’s been lost. Death, estrangement, and other types of loss may have irrevocably changed the makeup of your family during the holidays. Activities and traditions that used to be fun may now spark painful memories.

Tips to manage grief this season

  • Don’t force yourself to celebrate. It’s OK if you’re not authentically feeling the holiday spirit.
  • Avoid comparing your holiday to the holidays of others who haven’t experienced a similar loss.
  • Tell trusted friends and loved ones how they can support you during this season.
  • Find a support group or online network related to grief and loss, and consider talking with a mental health care provider.

6. Feeling disappointed

Maybe your life doesn’t look the way you hoped it would this year. This could be due to family conflict, loneliness, money troubles, career frustrations, or other disappointments. Maybe each holiday season reminds you that another year has passed without a particular achievement you hoped to reach. Or perhaps your life has changed dramatically since last winter, and you feel grief or resentment about not having the same life you had last year at this time.

Tips to manage disappointment

  • Practice gratitude. Even brief gratitude practices—like keeping a gratitude journal or making note of things you’re grateful for each day—have been shown to increase positive emotions and improve health.
  • Notice when you’re selling yourself short. When we get stuck in negative thoughts, we tend not to notice what’s going well. Identify things that are helping you or bringing you joy. Your disappointments are real and valid, but they don’t have to define your entire experience.
  • Choose helpful thoughts. Sometimes our patterns of thinking get extreme, which can make us feel hopeless, helpless, or worthless. Put some of your most common thoughts through a filter: Is there enough evidence that this thought is true? Is this thought useful? Is it leading me toward any helpful actions? Can I think of a more balanced thought that reflects my full reality?

7. Loneliness

A season that is supposed to bring people together can feel lonely if you don’t have loved ones to celebrate with, or if you don’t celebrate the same holidays as those around you. Since so many holidays involve religious traditions, you may feel left out if you don’t share those same beliefs.

Tips to manage holiday loneliness

  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs as a way of coping with holiday stress and loneliness.
  • Consider volunteering and giving back to others. Research suggests that volunteering fights loneliness by making us feel more connected to others.
  • Be the first to reach out. Others might also be struggling with loneliness this season and by reaching out you can help build a sense of community for yourself and others.
  • Use technology to connect with friends and loved ones you can’t see in person.
  • Reach out to a mental health care provider if your loneliness has become distressing.

8. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs because of changes in the seasons. Symptoms usually appear during late autumn and can include sadness, loss of interest in activities, low energy, sleeping changes, trouble concentrating, and more. Less daylight over winter months can contribute, along with cold weather keeping you indoors.

Depression symptoms can increase holiday stress by sapping your energy at the very time of year when you have a longer to-do list.

Tips to manage SAD

  • Consider seeking help from your doctor or a mental health professional to learn more about treatments that can be helpful to many people with SAD.
  • Make time for things that bring you joy.
  • Try to take advantage of milder weather days to get outdoors.

9. Managing struggles with alcohol use

For people who are struggling with alcohol use or have in the past, the expectation to use during the holiday season can be stressful and even pose a relapse risk.

Tips to manage alcohol this season

  • Be aware of your triggers. Check in with yourself about what situations, people, moods, or thoughts make it more likely that you use alcohol in a way that you aren’t comfortable with.
  • Use your support system. Consider sharing your goals related to substance use with someone you trust and let them know that you might need support or help staying accountable.
  • Make a plan for avoiding or coping with triggers. That could mean calling a trusted friend or family member, having an excuse (and means of transportation) on hand should you need to leave early, or practicing what you would say when someone offers you an alcoholic beverage that you don’t want to accept.

You’re not alone

Holiday stress is usually short-lived. However, if you’re finding it hard to function at home, at work, or in your relationships, reach out to a mental health professional. Therapy, coaching, and counseling can help with managing stress during the holidays. It’s normal to need extra support right now.

If you have Lyra benefits through your employer, take advantage of them. Lyra provides self-guided activities as well as structured guidance from mental health professionals so you can end the year feeling hopeful and empowered. And remember, no matter what holiday stress tips you take this year, make sure to celebrate yourself and your efforts. You’re making the best of what can be a difficult time.

About the reviewer
Sarah Hagerty, PhD

Sarah holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and neuroscience from University of Colorado Boulder and completed an advanced fellowship in PTSD at Stanford University. Prior to her role at Lyra, she served as an independent mental health strategy consultant for companies of various sizes across a variety of industries. She has a passion for using her expertise at the intersection of research, clinical practice, and neuroscience to deliver data-driven insights that help individuals and organizations thrive.

About the author
Rachel Heston-Davis

Rachel Heston-Davis is a writer and content marketer who specializes in the mental health and practice management software sectors. She is a contributing writer at Psych Central and her essays on mental health have appeared on What To Expect (a property of Everyday Health), Taavi, and Motherfigure.

Clinically reviewed by
Sarah Hagerty, PhD
Program Specialist for Workforce Mental Health
6 of December 2022 - 9 min read
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