Coping with the Stress of the Holiday Season

Despite the relentless messaging all around us toward the end of every year, the winter holiday season is often not the most wonderful time of the year for many people. 

Of course, any time there are high expectations on a one certain time of year or event, it can cause distress. There is so much pressure to live up to the idyllic image you’ve created in your mind, that any let down can feel like a personal failure. If everyone is having the most wonderful time of the year, why aren’t you? What are you doing wrong that your holiday season isn’t bringing you the same amount of joy as everyone else? The pressure can have a huge impact on your mental health! Stress and anxiety are often on high alert this time of year.

And that isn’t the only way in which this time of year can be emotionally difficult.

Many people struggle with seasonal affective disorder, experiencing increased depression symptoms due to the cold, dark days of winter. Because it’s so much darker for so much longer out of the day in the winter, our brains naturally start to produce more melatonin–that thing that makes you feel sleepy or like you want to stay curled up in bed all day. The fatigue that comes along with  seasonal affective disorder then makes it even more difficult to not only function at your regular “level” but to somehow get in the chipper holiday spirit.

It’s also a time of year where grief becomes particularly difficult to carry.

Holding space for grief while it seems like everyone around you is celebrating can feel extremely isolating. It’s a time of year that is usually filled with traditions carried out with loved ones.  But if you’re coping with the loss of a loved one, you now have to figure out how to navigate the season and your traditions without that person.

With all of these considerations, it can feel sometimes like finding contentment in the season of joy can feel a lot like swimming upstream. Especially as we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and learning to adjust to new traditions, and coping with massive amounts of grief and other emotional distress brought on by the pandemic.

So how can you find some peace in the holiday season?

Let yourself feel how you need to feel

No matter how much you might want them to, your feelings aren’t going away.  And when you try to ignore them, they often just show up in different ways. That could be insomnia or migraines or digestive issues–these physical manifestations of your feelings are your body’s way to get your attention and make you deal with what’s happening internally. Forget the idea that you “should” feel a certain way this time of year, and let yourself feel whatever it is you’re actually feeling. You can find ways to explore those feelings, through journaling or art or just talking it out.

Say no when you need to say no

There’s a lot of pressure to not miss out on things this time of year. Suddenly our calendar is filled with family parties and social events and cookie swaps until we have no more time for ourselves. And the rest of our responsibilities don’t take a pause this time of year, so juggling all of that is a lot to ask of yourself. Remind yourself that this is just one month out of the year, and if you can’t make it to this party you can always go to the next one. Leave time for yourself, not only to have space for your “to do” list, but to have the necessary time to rest.

Ask for support

While it might feel like you’re the only one struggling this time of year, you’re definitely not! The expectations at this time of year are overwhelming for a lot of us. It’s okay to express a need for help. You can also have a check in buddy; this would be a close friend you trust, who may also struggle this time of year. The two of you can plan regular phone calls or coffee dates to catch up with one another, and let yourselves express whatever you’re feeling. It can also help you feel more connected and less isolated without putting so much pressure on parties or gift exchanges or living up to someone else’s expectations.

Allow things to be different & try to appreciate something new

It can be hard to let go of old traditions, but sometimes hanging on tightly to the past hinders us more than it helps us connect with our loved ones and values. Not everything will stay the same forever, and just because something shifts doesn’t mean it loses its value. Try to find something new that you like, and express some gratitude for that! What is possible for you now that wasn’t last year or the year before? Can you take time to appreciate that as well as expressing grief at lost traditions?

If you’re struggling this holiday season, please contact our licensed therapists at the Grief Recovery Center in Houston, TX for help today.

Asma Rehman

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