According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, the holidays may not have as cheerful and merry an effect on many Americans as picture book stories might make us believe: Almost half of women and a third of men report heightened stress during the holiday season (American Psychological Association, 2006).
It’s likely that stress levels are even higher this year – polls consistently show that the United States is facing a new mental health crisis. The emergence of Covid-19 already put a great weight on American’s mental well-being, and in 2022 rising prices and the war in Ukraine are some of the major reasons Americans worry about economic as well as political matters (American Psychological Association, 2020; Heckman, 2022).
Why are stress levels higher during the holiday season?
There are countless reasons why many of us experience the holidays as a particularly stressful time.
Are you stressed about:
- holiday travel, and the exhaustion and complications that are connected with it (think overcrowded airports, cancelled flights, long car drives, etc.)?
- family drama and arguments?
- difficult relationships with your in-laws or other family members?
- your struggling relationship and the various ways your struggles may come out even more during the holidays?
- buying gifts and groceries, preparing meals, and hosting get-togethers?
Did you find yourself and your issues in some of the points above? If so, you’re not alone. Many Americans feel the same way.
The real reason you are stressed during the holidays
As we all know, some things cannot really be avoided. But what causes stress is often not an activity or event, but rather your expectations regarding the activity or event. You watch movies and read books, you remember (or misremember) holidays from your childhood that were just about perfect, and you create images and expectations of what the holidays should really be like – ideas that ultimately cannot be realized in your reality.
So, you end up disappointed, exhausted, or even downright angry.
How to make the best of the holiday season
But there are some things you can do to cut down on the holiday stress and enjoy the season as best as you can.
Understand where your struggles are
You likely already know what your biggest sources of stress and discontentment are. Do you have trouble getting along with some family members? Is this the first holiday season after the loss of a loved one? Are you spending more than you feel you can afford?
Identifying the reasons for your stress is the best way for you to become proactive and work out solutions. Maybe some of the suggestions below will work for you.
Manage your expectations
If you have more realistic expectations, they cannot be disappointed quite as easily. It’s normal to feel stressed during the holidays, and it’s normal that there’s some tension between family members. What you see on social media is not real life – you don’t post your conflicts either, right? You do not need a storybook holiday celebration to have a time that is both memorable and enjoyable.
The holidays are also the season of interpersonal conflicts. If your relationship is struggling, you may be afraid conflict with your partner will escalate. The children may fight more than usual, you may get to spend time with difficult relatives, some of your guests may not like each other, and more people may be cramped in a small space together, creating more potential for conflict.
But when you know what may cause conflict, you can prepare – at least to some extent.
- You already know it’s going to be difficult. Intentionally practice some patience.
- If you need a break, do you have a place to which you can withdraw to take a few breaths? Or can you take a walk?
- Remember that conversations and arguments that seem worthwhile fighting over in the moment often seem much less important in retrospect. Do you really care so much about the political inclinations of Uncle Billy? You can’t change him, so why not try to let it go once a year?
- Can you physically separate difficult family members from each other at the table?
- Can you prepare some activities to keep the kids busy so fights don’t escalate?
Create new traditions
Old family traditions can become a point of contention when some family members don’t like them or when different families come together. Ask each family member what is most important to them as you celebrate the holidays.
And how about creating some new traditions that are uniquely yours? Whether you have an annual hot cocoa bar, create ornaments together that will be family heirlooms in years to come, have a movie night together – there are endless possibilities.
Take a timeout
Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Take the time to sit down and read or indulge in some holiday activities you enjoy. Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a long time. Take a hot bath. Just a few minutes of time for yourself can do wonders for your mood.
Plan in some time as a couple
Find some time for your partner during this busy time of year. Go out for dinner or do something you like to do together. Maybe you can even get inspired and create a new holiday tradition just for your partner and yourself?
Do less – it’s more
The less you have to prepare and do, the better it will be for your mental health. Think about what you really need to have a happy holiday season. Are there events, activities, or menu components that can be left out or replaced? Again, ask your family members what’s really important to them. You may be surprised at what you hear.
Be kind and forgiving
Remember that others are likely to be just as stressed as you are. Be kind and forgiving even if someone is barking at you or expressing opinions that you disagree with. Perhaps some matters are worth a fight to you, but, when you look back at the holidays, many others may not be. Often, exercising some restraint can save explosive situations.
Can you find some things to be grateful for? Keep those things in the forefront of your mind as you move through the holiday season. Soon you may find you’re in much more of a holiday mood than you thought you could be.
Sometimes, you just need to get things out of your system. But there are better and worse ways of doing so. Instead of yelling at your spouse or children, how about calling a friend or writing in a journal?
Get enough rest
This is not a new one, but it can’t be understated. You are not likely to be in a good mood, patient and amiable, if you are overtired. Make sure you sleep enough.
If you manage your expectations and anticipate and prepare for troubles, you might just find that your holidays are a lot more enjoyable than you thought possible.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
American Psychological Association. “Holiday Stress.” https://www.apa.org, 2006. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.
American Psychological Association. “Stress in AmericaTM 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.” https://www.apa.org, 2020. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october.
Heckman, William. “Stress Level Of Americans Is Rising Rapidly In 2022, New Study Finds.” The American Institute of Stress (blog), April 11, 2022. https://www.stress.org/stress-level-of-americans-is-rising-rapidly-in-2022-new-study-finds.