Ah, the holidays—a time for joy, laughter, and festive cheer, right? Well, not always. According to the wise folks at the American Psychological Association, the holiday season can sometimes feel like a stress-fueled rollercoaster. It’s not just about decking the halls and singing carols; it’s also about navigating through the chaos of family gatherings, gift shopping, and the ever-elusive perfect holiday experience.

Holiday stress is a form of mental distress that often occurs during the holiday season. Holiday stress, although situational and usually mild, can lead to many other problems, such as depression or anxiety disorders (Cleveland Clinic, 2023).

The Holiday Strain: Factors Contributing to Seasonal Stress

Holiday stress is often associated with an increase in family discord, loneliness, and other factors, seasonal holiday stress can affect anybody regardless of whether they have a mental illness or psychiatric disorder. Many people feel pressure to spend more time socializing during the holiday season. 

Shortened amounts of daylight and potential Seasonal Affective Disorder further complicate emotional well-being. Holiday stress is not just because there are parties, shopping sprees, and environmental considerations. Past trauma or loss could contribute to feeling anxious about engaging with others—many people experience depression at this time of year.

The holiday season is often associated with overindulgence in behaviors, food, or other substances that may carry potential health risks. Furthermore, these expectations may contribute to financial difficulties or disagreements regarding allocating limited resources.

Studies found that stress levels increase by as much as 40% due to family obligations and can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, anger, and anxiety (APA, n.d).

In addition to the stress of family and social obligations, many people feel unrealistic pressure to be happy and cheerful during the holidays. Unwelcome external pressures can lead to feelings of sadness or depression, especially if you are not feeling festive.

Other studies have found that holiday stress extends to children and teens ((N.d.-a). Children may experience anxiety about whether they are meeting their parents’ expectations, while teens worry that other people might judge them based on their appearance. 

Loneliness and the Holidays: Navigating Isolation and Emotional Strain

Loneliness can also contribute to holiday stress. It is more common for people to be alone during this time due to travel plans and business obligations (Pearson, 2022; Khazan, 2016). According to recent studies, loneliness is at an all-time high. The holidays can be especially difficult for those who are single, disabled, or elderly. Studies show that the risk of developing chronic illnesses like heart disease increases with loneliness.

holiday stress

Loneliness is one of the most common mental health problems in the United States, and it can have a variety of negative effects on both your physical and mental health.

If you are feeling lonely, there are several ways in which you can combat this undesirable feeling:

Get involved with a new hobby or activity. A terrific way to distract yourself from loneliness is by getting involved in something new that interests you. Whether you learn how to knit or play tennis for the first time; finding something that makes your life more interesting can help keep boredom at bay during the holidays.

Go for walks outside whenever possible. One of the most effective ways to combat loneliness is to get outside and enjoy fresh air. Getting some exercise can help keep your mood up and is a great way to relieve stress.

Volunteering to support your favorite cause is a great way to meet new people, especially if you feel isolated from your family and friends during the holidays.

Spend time with family members who may also be feeling lonely.  If someone in your family or social circle is feeling down during the holidays, try not to leave them out of any activities that you have planned. Make yourself available for others who are feeling lonely.

Do not feel bad about spending time alone. It is okay if you want some quiet time on Christmas day; do not feel like you must spend every waking moment with your family and friends just because it is a holiday.

Try to stay in touch with people who live far away. You can do this by sending them cards or emails or even just a quick text message.

Make sure you do not overschedule yourself. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of holiday activities, but this can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

Mindful Holidays: Choosing Emotional Well-Being

When we feel stressed or anxious about the holiday season, it is important to remember that we can choose how to feel about the holidays. Mindfulness exercises such as meditation can help us focus on what makes us happy during this time of year (Marchand, 2012).

Meditation is an excellent way to decrease stress levels and increase physical well-being. Meditation allows us to take time out of our busy schedules to relax our minds and bodies (Kabat-Zinn et al., 2018). It improves self-confidence and decreases feelings of loneliness, which can be especially important during the holiday season (Marchand, 2012).

Meditation helps us feel more connected to others, helping us create stronger relationships with family and friends (Marchand, 2012).

Another well-researched strategy to reduce holiday stress includes focusing on gratitude. Gratitude can be a powerful antidote to stress and depression.

An effortless way to practice gratitude is to notice when someone does something nice for us, such as offering their seat on public transportation or picking up our dropped item without saying anything.

Expressing gratitude refocuses our attention, brings focus to positive considerations, and allows us to appreciate what we have instead of focusing on what we do not have in our lives (Kabat-Zinn et al., 2018).

Journaling every day, even one or two things for which you are grateful, can help you support and strengthen neuropathways and stay focused on the positive in your life (Kabat-Zinn et al., 2018).

Conclusion

If you are feeling depressed or anxious during the holidays because of holiday stressors, then it may be best for your health if you avoid these situations altogether.

However, avoiding these situations altogether may not be possible, so plan for stressful situations using problem-solving skills and be certain to set limits on how much you participate in social events. Most importantly, ensure you have an escape plan if things get too overwhelming.  It is never wrong to take care of your needs.

Consider joining an online support group where people can meet during these stressful times! Even if they do not have any solutions, they can at least listen while you vent (and vice versa).

Some great apps and websites offer support groups and forums where you can connect with others who understand what it is like to struggle during the holidays.

 

App Suggestions

Anxiety: MindShift App

Mindfulness: Headspace App or Mindfulness Coach App

PTSD: PTSD Coach App

Deep breathing: BellyBio App

Quitting smoking: QuitNow! App

Stress relief: Take a Break! App

CBT and ACT: What’s Up? App or WoeBot App

Better sleep: Relax with Andrew Johnson Lite App

Symptom tracker: Bearable App

Bipolar disorder: eMoods Classic App

If you do not want to talk about it with friends or family members, consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in collaborating with people who experience mental health challenges during this time of year.

You could flip a coin, embrace the chaos, laugh in the face of stress, and remember: it’s okay to be a bit of a holiday rebel. Your mental health will thank you. Cheers to surviving the holidays, one stress-busting strategy at a time!

References

 

Cleveland Clinic. (2023, November 27). How to cope with Holiday Stress and Depression. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/holiday-depression-and-stress

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018). A Study in Happiness—Meditation, the Brain, and the Immune System. Mindfulness, 9(5), 1664-1667.

Marchand WR. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and Zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. J Psychiatr Pract. 2012 Jul;18(4):233-52. doi: 10.1097/01.pra.0000416014.53215.86. PMID: 22805898.

Pearson, C. (2022). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/20/well/family/holiday-loneliness.html

Khazan, O. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/the-best-headspace-for-making-decisions/500423/

(N.d.-a). Retrieved from https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-blog/2018/december/overcoming-the-holiday-overwhelm

Shirley B.Wanga,b,⁎, AshleyBorders (2017.). The unique effects of angry and depressive rumination on eating-disorder psychopathology and the mediating role of impulsivity. Eating behaviors. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29477016/

Liu, A., & Cheng, S. (2023). Family Structure and Cohort Trends in Childhood Family Income Volatility. Socius. https://doi.org/10.1177/23780231231182515

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Even a joyous holiday season can cause stress for most Americans. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/11/holiday-season-stress#:~:text=While%20nearly%20half%20of%20U.S.,other%20points%20in%20the%20year.