7 min read

Navigating Holiday Stress: Strategies for Coping with Grief, Expectations, and Feeling Overwhelmed

The holiday season is often perceived as a time of joy and celebration but it can also prompt feelings of stress and anxiety. Balancing numerous responsibilities, expectations, and social commitments can take a toll on our mental well-being. Social media can act as a highlight reel showcasing everyone’s best moments and you may notice yourself comparing your holiday experience to others. As therapists, we often see the holidays to be a time of heightened distress and suffering. For those who have strained relationships with families, live away from loved ones, or who have lost family members, the holidays can bring up painful feelings of grief, loss, and isolation. The holidays can also be especially challenging for caregivers, who often face high expectations to have the “perfect” holiday and who have to-do lists that are miles long. This blog highlights some reasons why the holidays can be a challenging time and offers some strategies on how to cope.

Everybody experiences the holidays differently, however, some common factors can contribute to why many people struggle with mental health during the holidays:

  • Increased Stress and Expectations: The holiday season often comes with societal and personal expectations of joy, happiness, and togetherness. Some individuals may feel pressured to meet these expectations, leading to stress, anxiety, or depression if they fall short. The pressure for the holidays to be “perfect” can feel overwhelming and over-committing ourselves can lead us to feeling burnt out or resentful.
    • What to look out for: Tension/anxiety in the body, overwhelm, negative thinking, procrastination, burnout, resentment.
  • Financial Stress: Expenses related to gift-giving, travel, decorations, and other holiday-related costs can strain finances. Financial worries can significantly impact mental health during this time. Especially with the cost of living on the rise, this holiday season may be more challenging than ever.
    • What to look out for: Constant worry, changes in sleep (difficulty falling or staying asleep), changes in mood, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance behaviours.
  • Loneliness and Isolation: For those who are separated from family or friends, the holidays can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is particularly challenging for individuals who may have lost loved ones or who don’t have strong social support networks.
    • What to look out for: loneliness, sadness, boredom, and engaging in impulsive behaviours.
  • Family Conflict or Dynamics: Holiday gatherings sometimes bring together family members with complex relationships or unresolved conflicts. This can lead to tension, stress, and emotional challenges for individuals navigating family dynamics. For those who may be more introverted or struggle with social anxiety, there may be pressure to attend numerous social gatherings, causing stress and discomfort.
    • What to look out for: Anxiety, frustration, fear, discomfort, tension, conflict, and people-pleasing behaviours.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: Some individuals might put undue pressure on themselves to create the “perfect” holiday experience and compare their holiday experiences with idealized portrayals seen in media or on social platforms. This comparison can lead to feelings of inadequacy or disappointment.
    • What to look out for: Stress, burnout, comparison, fear of disappointing others, avoidance of criticism.
  • Grief and Loss: For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can intensify feelings of grief and sadness. Celebrating without a significant person can be emotionally challenging.
    • What to look out for: Grief, sadness, anger/irritability, low mood, missing your ones.
  • Seasonal/Weather Changes: The decrease in sunlight and colder weather during the winter months can trigger mood changes, specifically prompting lower mood and fatigue. We may also notice changes in appetite and sleep patterns.
    • What to look out for: Tiredness, lack of interest, low mood, avoiding/isolating, negative thinking, changes in appetite.

It’s important to recognize that each person’s experience during the holidays is unique. Understanding these factors can help individuals proactively address their mental health needs during this time by seeking support, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and managing expectations.

So How Do I Cope and What Are Some Skills I Can Practice?

  • Acknowledge Your Feelings
    • Acknowledging and accepting your feelings is the first step toward managing stress during the holidays. It’s okay not to feel constantly cheerful or upbeat. Recognize and validate your emotions, whether it’s excitement, sadness, stress, or a mix of feelings.
  • Plan and Prioritize
    • Creating a plan and setting priorities can significantly reduce stress. Make a to-do list, organize tasks, and prioritize what’s most important. Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Set Realistic Expectations
    • Avoid the pursuit of a “perfect” holiday. Understand that imperfections are a part of life. Set realistic expectations for yourself and others. Embrace the moments, focusing on creating meaningful experiences rather than flawless events.
  • Creating New Traditions and Meaning
    • Societal and cultural expectations can influence how we believe what holidays “should” be like. However, there are no rules as to what celebrations look like! Create new traditions with yourself or your loved ones. If celebrating with family does not feel good for you, is it possible to celebrate with your chosen family or friends? For loved ones who have passed, are there ways to celebrate and honour their memories?
  • Stick to a Budget
    • Financial strain can add immense stress during the holidays. Set a budget for gifts, decorations, and festivities, and stick to it. Consider alternative ways to celebrate that don’t involve excessive spending, such as DIY gifts or shared experiences.
  • Practice Self-Care
    • Make self-care a priority. Maintain a healthy routine by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating nutritious meals. Take breaks when needed and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
  • Practice Saying “No”
    • It’s okay to decline invitations or commitments that will overwhelm you. Set boundaries and learn to say “no” when necessary to avoid overextending yourself. We set boundaries with those we love to keep them in our lives. Boundaries allow us to feel safe in the relationships we have.
  • Embrace Mindfulness Techniques
    • Incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily routine. Practice deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to help manage stress and stay grounded in the present moment.
  • Delegate and Collaborate
    • Don’t hesitate to ask for help or delegate tasks. Involve family and friends in holiday preparations, making it a collaborative effort rather than shouldering everything yourself.
  • Limit Screen Time
    • Constant exposure to social media or screens can contribute to stress. Set limits on screen time to focus on real-life connections and reduce feelings of comparison or inadequacy.
  • Seek Support if Needed
    • If stress becomes overwhelming, seek support from friends, family, or a mental health professional. Talking to someone can provide valuable insights and coping strategies. A therapist can support you in processing the conflicting emotions that come up over the holidays. They can also help support you in acknowledging both the pain and the joy that can accompany the holidays.

Practicing these strategies may not decrease your stress entirely but hopefully help you navigate the holiday season with greater ease, fostering a greater sense of mindfulness and well-being. Remember, prioritizing your mental health is crucial, allowing you to enjoy the holidays in a way that feels fulfilling and meaningful to you.

What about Caregivers?

During the holiday season, caregivers (e.g., parents, adult children caring for parents, health care providers). who take care of others might find it harder than usual. They already have a lot to do, and the holiday expectations can make things even more stressful. Caregivers take care of people and might feel more pressure to make the holidays special for those they care for.

Caregivers need to take care of themselves during the holidays. We encourage caretakers to ask for help and take breaks when they need them. By doing small things for themselves, like asking someone else for help or taking some time off, caregivers can feel better and avoid burnout.

In conclusion, while the holidays can be a time of celebration for many, they also bring forth considerable challenges for individuals, especially caregivers. Understanding and addressing these challenges can empower those to navigate the holiday season more effectively. By acknowledging our struggles and implementing self-care practices, we can find moments of solace and fulfillment during this often demanding yet meaningful time.