Coping with Holiday Stress

Holidays can trigger significant stress. The holiday season is often a busy time and it may mean more traveling, spending, socializing, and family interaction than usual. Many of us experience a sense of obligation to attend events or participate in certain activities around the holidays. Others may experience the holidays as a difficult time due to feeling the absence of close friends or family members who have passed away. For individuals working to maintain sobriety, the holidays bring many challenges as well.

Exploring your own triggers for holiday stress will help you develop an effective, personalized plan for coping with stressors and, hopefully, allow you to experience more enjoyment this holiday season. Following the tips below will give you a great starting point for developing your own holiday coping plan.




1. Be Proactive in Managing Stress

Don't wait until you're already feeling stressed out to implement stress management techniques. Regularly check-in with yourself and monitor your stress levels. This way, you can put things in place to prevent yourself from reaching the point of feeling very stressed and overwhelmed.


2. Identify Your Primary Goal

This will help you to focus on what is most important to you and help prevent you from getting derailed. Once you identify your primary goal for the holiday season--or for a particular holiday gathering--this will guide your decisions and make it much more likely that you enter the new year feeling satisfied rather than regretful.

For example, perhaps your primary goals is to:

  • Reconnect with family members you haven't seen in awhile
  • Focus on values that are important to you, such as generosity or kindness
  • Have fun and simply enjoy yourself
  • Be helpful and productive
  • Engage in holiday traditions that are meaningful to you or others close to you
  • Maintain your sobriety


3. Make Time for Self-Care

When people become busy, self-care is often one of the first things that gets cut out of their schedules. I've been guilty of this myself at times, mistakenly thinking that I don't have time for a yoga class or to meet up with a friend for coffee because there is "too much" on my to-do list. It's during these busy times, however, that taking care of ourselves is most important. This holiday season make sure to prioritize self-care and set aside some "you time" every day, no matter what else is going on. This is especially important if you tend to be someone who does a lot for others around the holidays.


4. Let Go of Perfectionism

Striving for perfection is sure to lead to high stress levels. Perfection is not a realistic goal. Because perfection is not attainable, you are sure to fall short of perfection, leading to even more distress. So this holiday season (and year round) keep your eye on the big picture and don't get too wrapped up in the details. Not everything is going to be perfect, but there are sure to be at least some good things. Acknowledge the good rather than focusing on what isn't "perfect."


5. Adjust traditions or make new ones

If maintaining holiday traditions has become stressful, consider adjusting them or getting rid of some of your traditions. Rigidly adhering to plans often leads to emotional distress, so try to develop a more flexible mindset. 

Maybe you have a tradition of baking a variety of holiday cookies every year but this year is especially busy and you are feeling stressed about fitting this in too, but you really do enjoy this tradition and don’t want to skip it altogether. Perhaps you can select one or two kinds of cookies to bake rather than sticking to your usual three or four varieties. By simplifying this tradition, you are likely to enjoy it far more than if you tried to force yourself to carry it out in the same way as previous years.


6. Take breaks From Family As Needed

Family dynamics can be complicated. When everyone gathers together, it can feel overwhelming and tensions may begin to rise. If you begin to feel irritated, annoyed, or frustrated, then it is important to take a break from your family. This will not only serve as self-care but will also help prevent tensions from boiling over. How do you take a break? Volunteer to be the one to run out for that missing ingredient, go out for your morning coffee, or simply take a walk outside (if the weather permits).


7. Give Yourself Permission to Say "No"

Taking on too much always leads to an increase in stress. The holidays can become a time consumed by “shoulds,” as many of us have a sense of obligation to follow societal or family norms. This can quickly zap the enjoyment out of our holiday experience. Giving yourself permission to say no is an empowering way to make healthy choices that take your own wants and needs into consideration, rather than blindly following what you perceive to be the expectations of others.


8. Ask for help from others

Asking for help is also key to managing stress during the holidays. If you are pressed for time, are starting to feel overwhelmed by the number of things on your to-do list, or when a particular task seems daunting to handle on your own (e.g., hosting a large holiday gathering), it's time to ask for help. You are not responsible for doing everything for everyone; not even close.


9. Set a Budget (and stick to it)

The holidays often mean increased spending and this can create financial stress for many people. Between gifts, travel expenses, food, and drinks, the cost of the holidays can add up quickly. Setting a budget will help you monitor your spending and stick to what you can afford. 


10. Don't leave everything to the last minute

Whether it's due to disorganization or procrastination, leaving things until the last minute will create a lot of stress. Use time management skills--like developing a weekly schedule, prioritizing tasks, and minimizing distractions--to help you cross things off your list leading up to the holidays.

Not leaving things to the last minute includes developing your coping plan and identifying specific ways that you will implement coping strategies.

For example, if you're in recovery, then ahead of time you will want to identify a support person you can call if you are tempted to use and also consider looking up nearby 12-step meetings being held on holidays (there are usually extra meetings around the holidays, so don't assume that you're limited to regular meeting times/places).