Regardless of your faith or religion, it’s hard to not get swept up in the holiday spirit. Whether your main holidays are in winter or another season, and regardless of whether we’re talking about Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or Ramadan, the truth is that holidays should be a happy time, but they aren’t for many people. Studies suggest that around 40% of people feel stress around the holidays, and a study by NAMI shows that 64% of those with a diagnosed mental illness encounter significant stress during the holidays.
We’re going to talk about how this stress manifests, where it originates from, and how you can improve your stress levels around this time. Maybe you’re dealing with difficult family members or trouble with your finances, but there are ways of reducing all these stressors and more.
One of the biggest stressors is seeing the whole family. Some might also be stressed because they aren’t seeing loved ones, but we’ll touch on that in the next section. You might find that being around so many people in general is stressful, or that there are certain people (like a parent, sibling, or aunt or uncle) that particularly push your buttons.
Maybe they ask way too personal questions about your sore spots like money or relationships, or they might even be bullying or belittling. Some family members are also highly demanding or critical and are very difficult to be around.
The holidays might be the only time you see them, which can be a mixed bag of good and bad. How do you handle it? There’s a few coping skills you can use depending on whether you’re hosting the get together or visiting your family.
It’s usually easier to get away if you’re visiting family. First off, have an escape plan ready. This can be an excuse to leave such as having to see someone else, needing to go to sleep early for work, or anything else that quickly gets you away from the situation.
If you need just a little time alone, then be sure to pack suitable clothes like a thick coat and boots so you can walk around the block. This will give you time to cool off without leaving the gathering entirely.
You should try driving in your own car, or be with someone who understands your escape plan. If you didn’t bring your own car or the other person disagrees with you, then you might be stuck in a stressful situation.
Hosting the Holidays
This is harder because you can’t leave your own house. You can take small walks, but you can’t leave the party entirely if you’re hosting. Despite the challenges, there are ways of managing your holiday stress.
If your family members are very difficult, then consider setting firm limits before the gathering. This can include a specific time limit, such as everyone leaving at 9pm, and also letting them know that bringing up sensitive subjects can get them thrown out of the party.
Try to keep a spare room open that is off limits to everyone except you. This will give you a place to relax and catch your breath when you feel your stress increasing. If possible, try to have one or two allies that can take over if you’re feeling stressed. This will prevent all the pressure from being on you.
Whether you’re hosting or visiting, these holiday mental health tips might make the situation easier.
Accept family members as they are. We all have expectations for the people around us, but your family members may not live up to that. While there might be grievances and problems between you, try to set them aside until there’s a more appropriate time to discuss them. Also, try to be accepting of their own stress. They are likely more high-strung for the same stressors you’re feeling.
Consider learning more about assertive conversation techniques. This acknowledges and maintains the rights of both parties without leaving anyone feeling like they are disrespected or unheard. Lastly, there is nothing wrong with saying no. This might be saying no to entering a certain conversation or doing things while the family is around.
Grief and Loss Stressors
Holidays are about family gatherings, but that may not be possible if some family members are no longer with us. Aside from being a difficult time, you might be grappling with grief, loneliness, trauma, or depression over their passing. This is especially true for people who are very close to you, or those you share special holiday memories with.
Check in with yourself emotionally and see what you’re feeling. Set realistic expectations for yourself. Pushing yourself gently to see others might be healthy, but it could send you into a spiral if you are emotionally unwell and not prepared to see happy faces. Plus, keep in mind that holiday traditions might change as loved ones pass away.
Coping with Grief During the Holidays
If celebrating the holiday is too hard, then you don’t need to force yourself. This can do more harm than good. That’s especially true if the grief is fresh, but even old grief can be difficult to face during the holidays. Considering connecting with others who are facing the same thing in a support group, or seek out help with a therapist, friends who understand, or a faith group.
Let your family members know how you’re feeling and if they can support you during this time. Maybe it’s just checking in on you or understanding that you’re not feeling well and that you’re healing and getting through this tough time. You’ll find that your family members likely want to help, but they may not know how.
Try to keep the conversation open. If you hide your grief or force yourself to see others when you’re not ready, then it can be difficult to recover once the holidays are done.
Gifts and Financial Stressors
A big part of most holidays is buying and giving gifts. While the giving part often feels good, it’s the buying part that many people feel stressed over. This is especially true if there are many family members or if people expect you to spend more than you reasonably can.
You might also feel stress about choosing the perfect gift. Many people feel this, especially if the other person is known for being either more generous with gifts or critical of gifts they don’t like. This stress is compounded on a tight budget or if you have no idea what the other person likes.
While gift giving is important to many holidays, it shouldn’t be the focus, nor should you allow yourself to be overtaken by commercialization and the pressure to spend more than you can. Giving isn’t about spending money. It’s about giving what you can while setting realistic expectations for yourself.
Coping With Gift Giving Stress
Set a budget for your holiday spending. You should then break it down by how much you’re comfortable spending for each person. Leave some room in your budget so that it’s OK if you go over by several dollars for a few people.
If this is too hard, then consider a Secret Santa, White Elephant, or similar gift exchange. This gives people an experience and it’s fun, plus you can often spend less for it. Another strategy is just being transparent and letting people know that your finances are tight and you cannot give larger gifts. Most people will be remarkably understanding.
Personal or handmade gifts are another alternative. Maybe you can’t afford something expensive, but you can likely write loved ones a poem, frame a special photo, draw them a picture, or do something else creative that they will cherish.
Another idea is helping out around the holidays. Helping with cooking food, doing things around the house, or other forms of generosity that is special for the holidays. Plus, this has the added benefit of reducing your anxiety because you’re helping and focusing less on your own concerns.
Not Feeling the Holiday Spirit
Sometimes you’re just not feeling the holiday spirit. Maybe loved ones have passed, or maybe it just feels like something is missing and you can’t figure out why. The problem is exacerbated when others are swept up in the holidays and you feel left behind.
You might feel pressured to be social and cheery with others despite how you’re really feeling. Speaking up can also be difficult as few people want to acknowledge any emotion aside from happiness during these times.
It can also be difficult if your holiday or tradition isn’t the dominant one. All you can see is the dominant holiday, and celebrating your own holiday and more importantly, celebrating it your way can seem very difficult.
Coping With Low Holiday Spirit
Even though others might be pressuring you to feel a certain way, you don’t need to join in. If you truly aren’t happy and joyful, then acknowledge and have those feelings. They are yours and it’s OK to feel them even at the height of the holidays.
Some might be tempted to numb or avoid painful feelings by using alcohol and other substances. While this seems to help at the moment, it actually worsens these feelings as they are being pushed aside and left unprocessed.
If this is an ongoing issue, then try to examine why it’s coming up. For example, some might have holiday triggers that remind them of traumatic events, stress, or lost loved ones. See if you can separate the two. If not, then let others know that the holidays are not for you. It’s still best to see loved ones, but do it on your own terms.
Others might feel like their holidays celebrations are no longer supported or honored. Or you might feel like there are specific things you need in order to feel the holiday spirit, such as a specific holiday movie or recipe. Try engaging in these activities and see if they light up your spirit.
While the holidays are a joyous time for most, there is also a significant amount of stress and forced socialization that goes along with it. If these times are tough for you, then use the coping strategies mentioned here and see if they help. No matter how you celebrate, or if you celebrate at all, I wish you a happy and healthy year.