While folks gather, celebrate, eat, and drink over the holidays, it’s important to note that cheer and contentment aren’t everyone’s experience. For many, the holidays can be stressful, and for some, they’re downright difficult. Whether the discomfort is associated with seeing certain family members, eating holiday meals, or traveling, the holiday season can evoke varying degrees of unease.
Our expectations around the holidays sometimes interfere with effective coping. Some of us approach the holiday season looking for perfection or having otherwise lofty ideas about how certain events will transpire. When reality doesn’t match our expectations, this can be a setup for frustration and disappointment. A focus on accepting what is versus how we think things should be can go a long way toward effective coping. We can also use certain coping skills to get by. Below, we’ve taken a look at some of the more common sources of holiday stress and offered related coping strategies, sourced from DBT.
People: Exposure to more people than usual, including loved ones, can be challenging for some and is especially true for introverts. Some choose to find their own accommodations versus staying with relatives in order to create more downtime and space. Many people struggle with spending time with certain relatives, those who are difficult now or have been in the past. If this is true of you, there are a few skills you might use. Cope ahead with some of the more difficult characters or interactions. Planning on seeing creepy Uncle Bob? Have a plan to minimize your interactions with him, see him with other people, rehearse how you might respond to his typical questions, etc. Be prepared to say, for example, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that,” when someone brings up a sticky topic. It might be helpful to recruit other family members who are present or friends who are not as allies to help you get through the event. Remember that you can always take a pause. If you’re overwhelmed by a person or group of people, take a bathroom break. While you’re there, splash some cold water on your face. Or, step outside and get some fresh air. Walk a little, if you can. These pauses can serve as powerful resets. And finally, create some space before and after the event for self-soothing, distraction, and other forms of distress tolerance.
Travel: Travel can cause discomfort and frustration, and it’s particularly challenging these days. In order to ward off travel-related holiday stress, allow yourself more than enough time to get to the airport, get through security, or drive to your destination. If you’re an anxious flier, focus on self-soothing. Is there some calming music you can listen to? A peaceful scent to inhale? A cozy blanket that you can bring? See if you can distract yourself with a good book or magazine, a crossword puzzle, or something else that captures your attention. Remind yourself of the times that you’ve managed through similar symptoms. Remember that while anxiety can be unpleasant, it doesn’t mean you’re in danger.
Food: Most of us eat differently when we’re out of our routines. This includes holidays, vacations, etc. Part of having a healthy relationship with food is being able to be flexible to account for variations in our intake. Remind yourself that what you eat isn’t reflective of your morality. Eating is social and emotional at times, and this doesn’t have to be problematic. Most cultures use food to connect and to celebrate; eating with family and friends is a healthy way to honor your relationships. If you’re someone who routinely tends to eat past fullness on these occasions, it could be that you’re restricting leading up to these events. If you find that you’re excessively anxious about food, it could mean that you’re struggling with disordered eating, and perhaps it’s time to get help. Working with a professional can help you move toward intuitive eating, honoring your body’s innate wisdom when it comes to food.
Alcohol: A number of people struggle to moderate their drinking over the holidays. If this is true for you, be mindful of your use. Set an intention going in to each event. Be aware of drinking to cope with holiday stress and other difficult emotions. See if you can slow your drinking down, perhaps by alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Think ahead of how you’ll feel later in the day and the next morning if you’re to moderate your drinking (or not) and allow this process to guide your limits. Gravitate toward the lighter drinkers in the bunch, if there are any. If you’re sober, the holidays’ focus on alcohol can be particularly tough. Remind yourself of the consequences of your drinking and why you made the decision to abstain. Reach out to a support before an event for some camaraderie. Rehearse your “no” in advance, and perhaps prepare how you might respond if folks are to ask why you aren’t drinking. Choose satisfying foods and drinks at the event. It might be helpful, too, to check back in with a sober support following each difficult outing, to add a layer of accountability to your process.
Time: While many enjoy having time off from work or school during the holidays, having unstructured time can be challenging for some and can contribute to holiday stress. Some who struggle with depression, for instance, may not do well with large blocks of unplanned time. For those who don’t have many holiday plans or are otherwise isolated, there may be a lot of unstructured time. If this rings true for you, stick to a routine as best you can. Get up around the same time each day. Make sure you’re eating regular meals. See if you can get some physical activity most days. Are there people you can make plans with? Can you make sure you get out of your home each day, even if it’s to sit at a coffee shop or nearby park? What do you enjoy that you normally don’t have time to do? It might be a good time to plan for one or more of these activities. Creating a schedule for the day, even if you’re alone, can be a helpful strategy.
Money: Money is another stressor that can creep up during the holiday season. Whether it’s paying for flights or purchasing gifts or taking extended time off from work, many feel a financial crunch during the holidays. This can be even more of an issue during unstable economic times. If money is a significant stressor for you, know that you’re not alone. Can you ask your family/friends to draw names rather than have everyone purchase multiple gifts? Is there a way that you can plan ahead for increased expenses and/or reduced income? How about after the holidays, can you cut back on spending some? Is it possible to pick up some hourly work to help offset your bills? Thinking ahead realistically about your upcoming expenses can help you prepare and ward off any anxiety-provoking surprises.
We hope some of these strategies are useful to you. Remind yourself that effective coping doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle or have difficult emotions. Just surviving the holidays can be enough. Give yourself a break if you’re struggling with holiday stress, and remember to approach yourself with kindness and compassion during the holiday season and beyond.