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  • Writer's pictureHeather Steele

Navigating Anxiety During the Holidays: Finding Joy Amidst the Stress

Understanding Holiday Anxiety

For many of us, the anticipation of holiday festivities brings not just excitement but also a sense of apprehension. According to the American Psychological Association, a significant number of Americans report heightened stress during this season. This anxiety can stem from various sources:

Family Dynamics Contribution to Holiday Anxiety

Holidays typically involve family gatherings, which can be challenging for those with strained relationships. Past conflicts, unresolved issues, and the pressure to maintain a façade of harmony can create a tense atmosphere. For some, returning to a family environment can also mean revisiting old roles and dynamics that may be uncomfortable or unhealthy. This can be particularly difficult for individuals who have experienced trauma or who have significantly different lifestyles or beliefs from their family members.

Financial Pressures Escalate During Holiday Season

The holidays often come with the expectation of gift-giving, elaborate meals, and travel, all of which can be financially demanding. In times of economic uncertainty, these expectations can lead to significant stress, especially for those already struggling with their finances. The societal pressure to meet family and social expectations can create a burden of financial anxiety that detracts from the season's joy. Further, many people hold a high degree of privacy over their finances. This privacy can contribute to making financial decisions that are not in one's best interest in an effort to conceal their financial stress. 

Loneliness and Grief Over the Holidays

For those who have lost a loved one or are separated from their families, the holidays can be a stark reminder of their absence. This time of year can intensify feelings of grief and loneliness, making it particularly challenging for those going through their first holiday season without a loved one. Additionally, the emphasis on togetherness and celebration during the holidays can exacerbate feelings of isolation for those who are physically or emotionally distant from others.

Unrealistic Holiday Expectations

The media and cultural narratives often portray the holidays as a time of perfect joy and familial harmony. This portrayal can set unrealistic expectations for individuals, leading to disappointment when reality doesn't match these idealized images. The pressure to create a perfect holiday experience – from hosting flawless gatherings to finding the ideal gifts – can be overwhelming. When these high expectations are not met, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and stress.

Recognizing and understanding these sources of holiday anxiety is the first step in addressing them. Knowing that these feelings are common and that the media's portrayal of a perfect holiday is not always realistic can alleviate some of the pressure, allowing us to approach the holidays with more realistic expectations and a focus on what truly matters.

Coping Strategies for Holiday Stress

Once you start to understand the sources and triggers of your holiday anxiety, you can find the right tools to cope. Here are some strategies tailored to address the diverse needs and situations we all encounter:

Mindfulness and Meditation

Incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine, even if it's just for a few minutes each day, can make a significant difference. These practices, accessible through various apps and online resources, offer a way to reduce stress, improve emotional balance, and enhance focus. This approach is particularly beneficial in managing the hectic schedules and unexpected changes that often accompany the holiday season. 

You might try these 3 strategies:

  1. Breathe in through for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 9 seconds. You may also try to simply focus on lengthening your exhalation. Lengthening your exhalation is known to help reduce anxiety. This is seen when we take a big sigh of relief after a stressful event. 

  2. Observing and describing your environment or feelings. You might take a moment to observe what is happening for you internally (thoughts, feelings, emotions) and externally (your environment). For example, noticing the tightness in your chest, watching your family’s faces as they unwrap gifts, noticing the delicious smells of food cooking in the kitchen, or taking a moment to mindfully look at the intricacies of all of the holiday decor. It may be helpful to describe what you have observed, both internally and externally. For example, describing the feelings that arise in you (“I am noticing my feelings of anger”) or describing the characteristics of the holiday decor (“This ornament is fuzzy, blue, and sparkly”). Taking these moments to observe and describe can help refocus your attention away from stressors and anxiety, and bring you back to the present moment and your environment. 

  3. Half Smiling. After taking a moment to notice the tension in your face and relax that tension, you might try slightly lifting the corners of your lips. This can often be done in a way that is unnoticeable to those around you. This facial expression can help signal to your mind a sense of contentment and serenity. 

Setting Boundaries

Reflecting on past holidays to identify stress triggers is crucial. Communicating your limits to family and friends is an essential aspect of self-care. It's okay to decline certain traditions or gatherings that cause discomfort. Setting boundaries helps preserve your mental health and ensures that your holiday experience aligns with your needs and comfort level.

You might try these 3 strategies:

  1. Before saying yes to something, ask yourself how meaningful the request is to you and others. For example, are you being asked to completely restructure your day filled with important tasks to make a trip to the store, only to purchase something that is relatively unimportant to your family? This may mean it is a good time to practice saying no. 

  2. Plan out verbal boundaries you may need to set. You might rehearse saying “I would rather not talk about that, can we please change the subject?” OR “As we discussed, I am unable to attend that event this year.” Try to set boundaries in a way that does not cast shame or blame. Although someone may be doing something that seems shameful or worthy of blame, it often escalates conflict and is ineffective at reducing the behavior you are unhappy with. 

  3. Identify ways to reinforce, or encourage healthy communication and boundaries. For example, you might respond with gratitude and a genuine “thank you” if you request to change the topic and the person obliges. You might also explain the benefits to yourself and others for the boundaries you are setting. For example, “If we don’t talk about this topic, this gathering will be more enjoyable for me and help bring us closer together.” 

Taking Breaks

It's important to recognize when stress or discomfort is escalating during gatherings. Having a plan for quick breaks, like stepping outside for fresh air or finding a quiet corner, can be a lifesaver. In some cases, taking a longer break from certain family dynamics altogether might be necessary for your mental well-being. 

You might try these 3 strategies: 

  1. Inform your family that you will be staying in a hotel overnight, and will need to leave by a certain time each day. You might explain that you are looking forward to your gatherings, but benefit from having your own space to rest and recuperate your social battery. 

  2. Buddy up! Stepping outside with a family member(s) you are closer to can be a nice way to remove yourself from the situation and reduce the chances that others will focus solely on your absence from the room. 

  3. Splashing cold/warm water on your face in the bathroom. Try taking a moment of quiet in the bathroom where you can splash some water on your face to help soothe your worries. This can be a moment to do something mindful and take a break from the action happening throughout the gathering space. 

Nature Therapy

Simple outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, or just enjoying time in a park can be incredibly therapeutic. The calming effect of nature, known as the biophilia effect, not only reduces stress but also improves mood and cognitive function. Additionally, sunlight exposure aids in Vitamin D synthesis, which plays a key role in mood regulation.

Maintaining Therapy Sessions

Keeping up with regular therapy sessions during the holidays provides a consistent space to process emotions. If you're traveling, consider virtual sessions to maintain continuity. Discussing potential holiday stressors with your therapist beforehand can also help in developing effective coping strategies. Unfortunately, most licensed therapists cannot conduct sessions across state lines. However, your therapist can certainly help to make a tailored plan for you to cope with the holiday stress. 

Honoring Lost Loved Ones

Creating a tradition to remember and honor loved ones who have passed away can be a meaningful way to deal with grief during the holidays. Allowing yourself to express grief is vital for healing. Relying on support networks who understand your loss can provide comfort and understanding during this time.

Financial Management

Setting a clear budget for holiday expenses helps avoid financial stress. Opting for homemade gifts or meaningful experiences over expensive store-bought items can also alleviate financial pressure. Having open discussions with family about financial limitations can help set realistic expectations and reduce stress. Finances are stressful for many folks at this time. Its possible that others are feeling the same way you are, and waiting for someone else to have the conversation. 

Finding Your Chosen Family 

For many, it can feel incredibly isolating to be without family this time of year. Chances are, you may know someone else who is in a similar situation. Whether that be a friend you are already close with or a coworker you’ve been meaning to chat up - it’s never too late to get started on fostering connections that can become your chosen family. 

Planning and Preparation

Using a planner to manage holiday-related tasks like shopping, baking, and socializing can prevent last-minute rushes. Delegating tasks to family members helps distribute the workload. Additionally, having backup plans for events that might become too stressful can provide a sense of control and ease anxiety. 

Healthy Habits

Maintaining a balance of healthy foods, regular exercise, and adequate sleep is vital. Nutritional balance helps in managing stress levels, while a regular exercise routine, even simple daily walks, can significantly improve mental health. Ensuring enough sleep is crucial, as sleep deprivation can exacerbate stress and anxiety.


Allocating time for activities that you enjoy is essential for self-care. Staying present and avoiding dwelling on past or future worries through mindfulness techniques can enhance your holiday experience. Seeking help from a mental health professional when feeling overwhelmed is also an important aspect of self-care.

Making a Plan for Your Medications 

Pharmacies and doctors may not be able to fulfill your refill requests as quickly as they might be able to at other times of the year. For an already stressful time of year, running out of your medication on an important holiday can be an added stressor. Check to see if you are almost out of any medications you take, and speak with your doctor or pharmacist about refilling them sooner if possible. If you take any medications on an as-needed basis, particularly for anxiety, it might be helpful to purchase a pill holder keychain online, so that you have easy access while at social gatherings. 

Find a Partner in Managing Holiday Anxiety with Morrisville Counseling

As we navigate the complexities of the holiday season, it's important to remember that seeking support is a sign of strength. If you find yourself struggling and have been trying to manage these challenges on your own, consider reaching out for professional help.

Morrisville Counseling and Consulting offers a compassionate and skilled team of therapists dedicated to assisting people from all walks of life. Specializing in coping with stress and addressing its underlying causes, our team is here to provide you with the support and tools you need to navigate this season more comfortably. 

You don't have to face these challenges alone. Let Morrisville Counseling and Consulting be your partner in finding greater peace and joy during the holidays and beyond.

Reach out to us today and schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation to find out if we are a good fit for you.


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