Author | Photo Dan Whale

How To Spot (and Squash) Holiday Stress

The holidays are a wonderful time to celebrate with family and friends, but the season–often packed with chores and commitments–comes with its own set of stressors. The expectations we put on ourselves are at an all-time high and as a result, anxiety tends to peak for many this time of year.

Though not inherently good or bad, the holidays bring about a change in routine that can have persisting effects if managed improperly. As the season ramps up, understanding potential stress triggers, identifying the resulting behaviours and mitigating their impact will be crucial for staying happy and healthy.

Top Holiday Stressors

Get-togethers are a big part of what makes the holidays enjoyable, but even the most well-intentioned gatherings can be stress-filled. Conflict is not uncommon amongst family members who haven’t seen one another in a long time, particularly when hours are spent together catching up over cocktails, long drives and busy schedules. We’ve all been there: hot-topic conversations can quickly morph into arguments and can put a damper on an otherwise lighthearted reunion.

There are also many costs associated with the holidays. In addition to money spent on gifts that can result in a strained budget, there’s the expectation and the desire to give back to the community, as well as the potential for overextending your time commitments.

These pressures often come in the form of “should statements”: I should make the perfect dinner; I should buy the best presents; I should volunteer my time. If these expectations are not met, the resulting feelings of guilt may be overwhelming and can manifest in unhealthy ways.

Spotting Harmful Behaviours

Not only is it important to pay attention to how your loved ones are acting (or acting out), but it’s also vital to recognize when your own attitudes are starting to shift.

The biggest signs are often observed changes in “normal” behaviour. Someone who is typically outgoing and assured may become withdrawn and overly anxious if they’re experiencing holiday stress. This, in turn, can cause a change in regular eating habits or trigger irregular sleeping patterns that ultimately affect a person’s mood and overall outlook and demeanour.

Spotting these harmful behaviours is the first step in managing them properly. Whether identified in yourself or in others, there are a number of simple and practical tactics that will help to get things back on track.

Managing Anxiety’s Impact

Though prioritizing self-care may seem counter-intuitive during the season of giving, it should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list this time of year. Planning ahead to ease the pressure of a busy schedule, setting and focusing on small, achievable daily goals, and carving out time for yourself are all ways to challenge the onset of holiday anxiety.

Further, though this is a commitment-heavy time of year, it’s not the time to abandon the usual support systems on which you depend to stay healthy. If you or someone you know is feeling overextended, it’s especially important to keep up with any professional mental health appointments that help you feel balanced and to put the stress-management skills you’ve gained in your sessions into practice.

Whether or not you’re in the habit of speaking with an expert, it’s helpful to understand how the mind and body contribute to your everyday experiences. Having thought awareness (i.e., paying attention to how you’re feeling and how those emotions can influence your thinking) will help you to anticipate and better manage your own unhelpful responses.

For example, holiday stress can cause the kind of thinking that puts you in a bad mood, which can cause you to withdraw from activities that could actually lift your spirits. Rather than succumbing to negativity and coping through retreating, seek simple activities that bring you pleasure (like going for a walk or calling a friend), find comfort in something you’ve mastered (like playing the piano or painting a picture) and get your endorphins pumping with a physical activity (like carving out time for that workout or dance class). This is also known as behavioural activation.

Staving Off Post-Holiday Depression

A little flexibility can go a long way this time of year, so the ability to adjust your expectations of yourself and of others can result in a happier holiday season. But what about when the chaos dies down and life returns to normal?

Coming down after a hectic few weeks of socializing can be just as difficult as getting into the spirit. Once again, switching gears suddenly can cause unhealthy cognitive and behavioural patterns, but these are still manageable through the same techniques. Ease the transition by thinking about the activities you’ve had to put on hold to accommodate your holiday schedule and enjoy getting back into your regular routine. It’s also the ideal time of year to reflect on your accomplishments, to set new goals, and to focus on how you can achieve them in the months ahead.

Finally, if there’s something specific about the holidays that brought you joy, look for ways to carry it over into your day-to-day life. Holding on to what makes the holidays special all year round will help you remain open to and hopeful for the wonderful things that lie ahead.

Dr. Khush Amaria, PhD, CPsych, is a clinical psychologist and senior clinical director of the Greater Toronto Area-based psychology practice CBT Associates. She provides treatment for children, adolescents and adults with anxiety, depression, adjustment difficulties, parent-child relational difficulties, and other health- and coping-related mental wellness problems.

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