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Holiday stress: A compassionate guide about holiday stress and how to manage it

As the holiday season approaches, many of us feel happy, excited, cheerful, and… stressed. You probably can’t tell that stress is a universal experience during the holidays. How could you? Considering all of the picture-perfect photos on Instagram (highlight reels) and cheery (more like cheesy) Christmas cards. But it’s true that the holiday season isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. 

Between traveling, cooking lavish meals, and making small talk with distant relatives (not to mention working to meet tight deadlines so that you can take a few days off to do all of the previously listed stress-inducing things), you’re bound to feel overwhelmed.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide. We answer some of the most common questions about holiday stress, from how to handle stress when you’re hosting to how to deal with stressful in-laws. You’re encouraged to read it in full or jump to the sections that apply to you. In either case, we hope this Holiday Stress Guide helps. 

What Is Holiday Stress?

Holiday stress is just as it sounds — it’s stress that occurs during the holiday season, which typically refers to the months of November and December. During this time of year, people are celebrating two of the biggest holidays in the US: Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What Are Common Signs of Holiday Stress?

Holiday stress manifests like other forms of stress — work stress, stress in your relationships, stress about an upcoming event. Here are a few of the most common signs or symptoms:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tense muscles
  • Jaw clenching
  • Racing thoughts and/or heart
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches or digestive problems
  • Dizziness
  • Shaking
  • Irritability

If you have any combination of the above symptoms in thinking about or planning for the holidays, you’re likely experiencing holiday stress. That said, you probably don’t need to consult a list of symptoms to determine whether or not you’re feeling stressed about the holidays. 

What Causes Holiday Stress?

Now, why are the holidays so stressful? The reason(s) you’re stressed and the reason(s) your best friend Kiana or your coworker Tommy are stressed around the holidays are likely different. They might also have a few things in common.

Some of the most common causes of holiday stress include:

  1. Family get-togethers: This is the main culprit of holiday stress. While spending time with family is something that many of us look forward to during the holidays, it’s also a breeding ground for stress. This goes for the hosts and the attendees. There’s a flight to catch or a long drive ahead; prepping and decorating to be done; food to be made (for hours on end); a number of relatives to catch up with (and nosey questions to dodge); the list goes on. One or two of these items alone can create feelings of stress — now, put them all together, and you have a recipe for holiday stress.
  2. Money: Most of us spend more money during the holidays than we do any other time of year. Think: plane tickets, gas, gifts, food, decorations. Traveling, gift-giving, making those lavish dinners, and decking out the house for the holidays can add up quickly. These expenses can put a damper on your wallet and cause you to experience financial stress.
  3. Gift-giving pressure: As it turns out, gifts don’t just cause financial stress. The pressure to pick out the “perfect gift” can cause stress, too. Now, some of us enjoy the whole gift-giving thing — in fact, our favorite part of Christmas Day is watching our friends and family members open the presents we so carefully picked out for them. But others aren’t as into it and worry about disappointing their loved ones instead.
  4. Excessive commitments: Breakfast at home, 9:00 am. Lunch at Grandma’s, 11:30 am. Football-watching at Dad’s, 1 pm. Early dinner at the in-laws, 3 pm. Second dinner back at Dad’s, 5 pm… this hectic holiday schedule might look familiar. We feel guilty if we only spend the holidays with one side of the family, so we do our very best to fit everybody in — to our own stressed-out detriment.
  5. Lack of time: Bouncing off of the excessive commitments bit — lack of time can lead to our holiday stress, too. We want (no, need) to fit Grandma, Dad, the in-laws, and every other member of the family into our schedule. But the confines of time don’t always allow it. Cue more stress.
  6. Unrealistic expectations: Sometimes, the stress hits just after the holidays come to a close. You so looked forward to spending time with family; you fantasized about impressing your in-laws with a perfect turkey; you romanticized about sitting next to your dream man on the flight home. Whatever the fantasy or expectation, it doesn’t come true — you didn’t enjoy the time spent with family because everyone argued the whole time; you didn’t impress your in-laws with your turkey because it burnt to a crisp; and you didn’t sit next to your dream-man on the plane, you sat next to a screaming baby. The stress that was the last few weeks sets in and you feel depressed that you don’t have the holidays to look forward to anymore (not until next year).

How Many Americans Feel Holiday Stress?

Like we said before, feeling stressed during the holidays is not unusual. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 38% said their stress level increases during the holidays. Additionally, a study in 2019 found that over ⅓ of Americans would choose to skip the holiday season due to stress. 

How Do I Get Rid of Holiday Stress?

Now, to perhaps the most important question yet: How can you get rid of holiday stress? Unfortunately, you probably can’t get rid of your stress completely. However, you can learn to better manage your stress in the moment and take steps to minimize your holiday stress.

Let’s look at a few ways to get rid of or better manage your holiday stress when it’s happening:

  1. Talk to yourself in a calm, logical tone. Picture this: The kids are running laps around the house. Your turkey prep is way behind schedule. Aunt Linda is talking your ear off. I think we can agree, this sounds stressful. Ease this stress by talking yourself down in a calm voice. It can help to reframe the stressful situation. For example: The kids are having so much fun. Sure, your turkey is behind schedule, but that means you’ve got more time to prep the rest of the food. And Aunt Linda might be long-winded, but she’s actually sharing some really heartwarming stories about your mom.
  2. Practice a mindfulness exercise. There are countless mindfulness exercises out there to choose from. One of the most simple is a quick breathing exercise. Break away from your family and the food for a few minutes, and try to find a quiet space. Standing outside or sitting in the car is completely acceptable. Once you’ve found your quiet, take a deep breath in through your nose — count to 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds. Then, release through your mouth for 8 seconds. Do this as many times as you need to.
  3. Find someone you feel safe with. Certain family members can cause a lot of the holiday stress we experience. Your nosy parents, the stuck-up mother-in-law, the loud and annoying children. However, certain family members can also serve as a safe space. Your empathetic sister. Your loving husband. Your compassionate mother. If you’re feeling stressed due to some of your loved ones or something else entirely, find that someone you feel comfortable and calm with. They can help you reset.
  4. Make a list. If the source of your stress is everything that you still need to get done before leaving the house or welcoming others into yours, try making a list. Don’t let that infinite number of to-dos swirl around in your head on repeat. Write them down on paper or, at the very least, a note on your phone. Because that infinite number of to-dos isn’t actually infinite — there is a tangible amount there. And once you write them down, you’ll see how many tasks you actually need to do before the holiday festivities begin. And then, but only then, can you start to prioritize and conquer.
  5. Remember the “reason for the season.” When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed during the holidays, take a pause and remember your reason for the season. Remember why people (including you) get so excited for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Remember why it’s called the most magical time of year. Remember why we continue to celebrate the holidays, year after year, despite the stress we might experience. We don’t have an unequivocal answer for you. Your reason for the season is personal to you. But we can probably guess it has something to do with love, family, friends, tradition, and making memories. Now go and try to make the most of it.

How to Overcome Holiday Stress with Work

Though we did not list this as a common cause of holiday stress, work can certainly contribute to feeling overwhelmed around the holidays. This might seem counterintuitive, especially for those who enjoy time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas without a second thought. But the reality is that many people feel stressed before — or even as a result of — taking time off for the holidays.

If you’re feeling stressed before your holiday vacation because 1) you’re working toward a tight deadline 2) you want to get ahead (to prevent getting behind), remind yourself that you deserve this time off. You quite literally earned it. Not only will taking time off benefit you, but it will benefit your company. You’ll feel rejuvenated and ready to return to work, which will lead to greater productivity — that is if you can manage the stress caused by taking time off.

How to Handle Holiday Stress When Entertaining

There are two groups of holiday goers — those who host the holidays and those who travel for the holidays. The former group can experience stress specific to entertaining their guests: preparing the house for visitors, cooking the Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, welcoming each friend and family member, meeting guest expectations, and the list goes on.

If you’re the host this year, here are a few essential tips for handling the stress that comes with entertaining guests:

  • Prep as much as you can in advance. Do not — I repeat, do not — wait until the last minute (that being the day of) to get your house ready for festivities. Take advantage of the time and space that you have before guests arrive to prepare. This means grocery shopping, cleaning, arranging guest bedrooms, chopping veggies, breaking out the basketball or the volleyball net. Prep as much as you can in advance so that you don’t feel stressed and rushed come Thanksgiving or Christmas day.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is nothing wrong with asking your spouse, your mother, or any of your guests for a little help. Ask everyone to bring a dish so that cooking the whole holiday feast isn’t on you. Or, you could ask for some help prepping the turkey, rolling out the pie dough, and putting out hors d’oeuvres. Your guests will probably appreciate being given a task — it means less awkward small talk with others.
  • Lower those expectations. This isn’t meant to be grim but realistic. If you set your expectations low from the beginning, there won’t be as much room for disappointment and stress. Tell yourself it’s going to be a good day — but don’t paint a perfect picture that you then have to live up to. Your turkey might come out dry, your guests might run late, your kid might get injured playing basketball. And guess what? That’s okay. It’s all okay. And you’ll probably feel okay (or at least okay-er) about it if you keep realistic expectations from the get-go. 
  • Come up with an activity or two to keep everyone busy. More planning in advance! If you feel stressed about your ability to keep everyone entertained, try to come up with some fun things for everyone to do while they’re waiting on food. You could get a few yard games ready or even propose in advance that you do a Secret Santa for Thanksgiving. 
  • Take a break from hosting duties. Finally, don’t get too caught up in all of the entertaining responsibilities. Remember to have fun, be in the moment, and enjoy this time with friends and family.

Dealing with In-Laws Who Make Holidays Stressful

Maybe you’re experiencing holiday stress because your in-laws are a headache. Or, maybe you’re stressed to meet or spend time with your in-laws because you’re new to the family! In either case, here’s your strategy: be the best version of yourself. Tap into your kind, patient, and loving side. This’ll help you navigate any stressful conversations with your in-laws and/or create positive interactions with your new family members. 

The truth is that we all have family members (whether they’re in-laws, aunts, uncles, or distant cousins) that we aren’t too fond of. And interacting with these individuals isn’t exactly our favorite part of the holidays. That said, they are family — and whether we like it or not, we likely have many more holidays to come with them. So it’s best to keep these interactions as pleasant as possible.

How to Avoid Holiday Stress

Now, a question we’d all love to know the answer to: How can we avoid holiday stress? As we hinted at earlier, avoiding holiday stress altogether is likely impossible. But there are, in fact, a few steps you can take to avoid some of the holiday stress that might occur. 

  1. Get to the bottom of your stressors. First, you need to identify what causes your holiday stress. Is it hosting? Is it traveling? Is it gift-giving? Is it seeing your in-laws? Is it taking time off of work? Is it spending money? All of the above is an option, too.
  2. Plan accordingly. Now that you’ve identified your stressors, plan accordingly:
  • If hosting stresses you out, consider asking another family member to host this year. 
  • If, on the other hand, it’s traveling, propose having holiday dinner at your place this go around. 
  • If it’s the gift-giving, propose Secret Santa or another gift-giving game that takes some of the pressure (and spending) off.
  • If it’s seeing your in-laws, come up with a safe word — anytime you need to be saved or you need to leave, slip it to your partner. Or, if your stress is severe, consider talking to your partner about your feelings and whether you need to take a break from seeing the in-laws this year.
  • If taking time off of work stresses you out, do what you have to do to convince yourself you deserve it. Read the psychological reasons why you should take a break from work if you have to.
  • If spending money stresses you out, don’t! Or, more realistically, budget well. Nobody says you have to spend $1,000 on gifts for your family. And you can likely make your house look like the winter wonderland you long for without buying boxes and boxes of new decorations. 

The big takeaway is this: You deserve to have a happy holiday season, but only you can define that. Get to the bottom of what stresses you out, come up with a proactive plan for curbing the cause(s) of your stress, and implement it. 

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Written by
Taylor Bennett
Published May 22, 2022, 1 min read.
Table of contents

What Is Holiday Stress?

What Are Common Signs of Holiday Stress?

What Causes Holiday Stress?

How Many Americans Feel Holiday Stress?

How Do I Get Rid of Holiday Stress?

How to Overcome Holiday Stress with Work

How to Handle Holiday Stress When Entertaining

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Written by Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the senior content strategist at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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