Updated 11/21/2021

When the holidays don’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year: Tips for keeping holiday stress at bay

The other day I was talking to my friend Kara about the upcoming holiday season. “The stress is already creeping in,” she said. “Last year was hard, not seeing extended family, but it was also a tiny bit of a relief. This year, the stress I used to feel around holidays is even worse – like we have to make up for the season we lost. I’m not sure I can take it!”

I could SO relate to what she was saying. Of course no one was happy to cancel holiday gatherings and stay home last year, but it DID give us all a little breathing room. The reprieve from trying to achieve the “perfect” holiday season was refreshing.

If you get your ideas of what the holidays are about from magazines, holiday movies and marketing gurus, you may believe this is supposed to be the most magical time of year.

But for so many women I know, the holiday experience isn’t quite so joyful. Whatever holidays you celebrate, the season can be filled with stress and misery instead of magic and fun. That was my own experience for far too many years!

I remember watching my mother at Christmas time when I was a child. She went all out for the holidays, striving to create a magical experience for me and my family. Her holiday frenzy was how she showed her love for us, but in the process she ran herself ragged.

Many years later, when I became a mother, I tried to be just like her when the holidays rolled around, thinking I had to recreate her magic for my own children. The demands of putting on such a production left me sick and exhausted by Christmas Day, but I didn’t dare to admit it. After all, she made it look so easy!

The year my mother died was profoundly sad, but it also helped me put some things into perspective. I realized that I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone, and I didn’t have to celebrate the same way she always had. That year, I carried over a few of the traditions I loved, but my family created our own new traditions as well.

For the first time since starting my own family, I felt great on Christmas Day! I was sad that my mother was no longer with us, but the experience created a huge “aha” moment for me. I didn’t have to do things the way she’d always done them. And neither do you. There’s no need to stay stuck in a past that isn’t working for you. Recognizing and understanding your own needs is so important to enjoying – not dreading – the holiday season.

Understanding Holiday Stress – and its impact on your health

It can be so hard to accept that the holiday season doesn’t have to be filled with angst. Every year I have women flocking to the clinic with complaints of weight gain, exhaustion, heavy bleeding, breast lumps, depression, and out of control PMS or menopausal symptoms. Often, they’re in tears, wondering how they will make it through the season. “I don’t have time for this,” they often lament, “There’s simply too much to get done!”

Wouldn’t it be nice if it worked that way? If our bodies would wait until life slowed down a little before protesting? But, if that were the case we might never recognize that we’re doing this to ourselves.

At this time of year, that’s one of the most important lessons I can share with my clients. It doesn’t have to be this way, and there is something you can do about it. It all comes down to managing stress.

The busy holiday season lends itself to both physical and emotional stress, and your body doesn’t recognize a difference. It’s essential to know where that stress comes from around the holidays. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in expectations and activities that we never stop to think about what it’s doing to us. Here are a few common sources of stress during the holidays:

Not letting go of past expectations

Do you sometimes find yourself frantically trying to make something happen in a certain way without even knowing why? If you slow down for a moment, you might find that you are subconsciously trying to replicate past holidays exactly as they happened when you were a child.

But here’s the thing: You have your own family, your own life, and it’s very unlikely that it’s exactly as your mother’s life was. Maybe she was home, and could spend hours decorating the house just so – but you work full time, and are busy shuttling children to activities, and on top of all that, you have an aging parent to care for. Or maybe your memories of how effortless it was for her simply aren’t accurate.

I know how easy it is to get caught up in the story of our past – I did it for years. But the year I finally let go of those expectations was the year I truly enjoyed Christmas. And from that time on, I’ve worked each year to really pay attention to reducing stress and enjoying the season.

Last year was a perfect opportunity for many of us to take several steps back and reassess how we want the holidays to feel. Instead of just jumping back into the chaos, this year is a great time to think about what you truly missed – and what you can let go of once and for all!

I’ve had gifts purchased by the end of November for years now, which gave me time to listen to holiday music, watch movies on the Hallmark Channel, spend leisurely time with friends and truly relax during a month that used to be spent running frantically from one place to the next. It’s truly amazing – and you can do it too!

This year, try asking your family how they want to celebrate (and what they can do to help make it happen), and let go of outdated expectations. You’ll be amazed at how much peace you will find when you do!

Battling depression

Joy is the word of the season, and it can feel like there’s something wrong with you if you simply don’t feel it. But so many women put everyone else’s needs before their own and end up feeling lonely, sad, and unable to relax.

This is especially true for women who have weathered a significant change in the prior year – a major illness, a death in the family, separation or divorce, and adult children leaving home for the first time. The feelings that these events trigger feel out of place when everyone around you is smiling, but trying to ignore them often makes them worse.

In addition to the pressures of the season, an estimated 10-20% of the population is affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as the “winter blues.” It’s ironic, isn’t it, that at this “wonderful” time of year, sunlight is fading, and many people are already struggling with mood changes.

Whether caused by specific trigger events, chronic stress, or a change in seasons, depression isn’t something to ignore. Pushing these feelings aside can cause you to turn to “quick comforts” like overeating or drinking too much alcohol, which ultimately leave you feeling lousy.

Some better solutions include reaching out to loved ones for support, talking through the feelings with a doctor or therapist, reducing stress with exercise and/or meditation, and getting outside to enjoy the crisp fresh air.

Depleting your resources

A major source of holiday stress is trying to stretch your resources too thin. It might be time, money or both – you don’t have a limitless supply of either, and acting as if you do will quickly burn you out. This is why taking space to breathe and reflect on what is truly important to you is essential. Women find it so difficult to put themselves first – but we have to stop putting ourselves last!

If you fill up every moment (even if they’re things you might enjoy in quieter times) and spend every penny you have, your cortisol level is likely to stay sky high. Your adrenals feel under attack, and they pump out the cortisol to fend off the threat – even if you aren’t in any actual danger. And if cortisol stays elevated for too long, your adrenals may become exhausted trying to keep up, your insulin levels will be volatile, brain function could be impacted, and you’ll start experiencing alarming symptoms.

Skipping Exercise

Jumping through hoops to make everyone happy doesn’t count as exercise. It’s far too easy to justify skipping a workout because of a late night, or choosing to go shopping instead of to the gym, but when you forgo exercise entirely, you’re cheating yourself out of vital support for your system.

Skimping on sleep

Who has time for sleep? you might think. With so much to do and a short window of time to do it in, it’s tempting to stay up late or get up earlier to fit it all in. A friend recently told me she’s usually up at 4 am during the holiday season, baking cookies or wrapping gifts for one event or another.

It only takes a couple of days of too little sleep to send your body reeling into an unhealthy cycle due to disruption of your natural circadian rhythm. You’ll end up relying on caffeine to get you up in the morning, crashing later in the day and turning to carbs, sugar or caffeine to keep you going. This “quick fix” gives you a boost of energy, so you might agree to even more activities, which keep you up late, and the cycle goes on.

Indulgences everywhere

The holiday season, for some, begins at Halloween and stretches all the way to New Year’s Day. That’s two full months – plenty of time to derail your efforts to stay healthy. Remember, a holiday is one day – there’s no need to indulge for weeks on end. But it can be difficult, can’t it?

During the holidays, it can seem like everywhere you go there’s a full table of treats on display. Just remember that all those sugary, carb filled goodies can wreak havoc on your metabolism, bringing on digestive trouble, extreme mood swings, increased insulin sensitivity, and weight gain. I hear about that last one all the time – women put on a few pounds during the holiday season and never get rid of it.

And it’s not just the sweet treats that are hard to avoid this time of year. Sometimes it seems like everywhere you go has a festive holiday cocktail available. While an occasional drink to celebrate is fine, it’s so easy to go overboard.

And too much alcohol can derail your health very quickly. Not only can over-imbibing set you up to binge and crash repeatedly (you have a drink, feel relaxed, but then the effects wear off, so you have another), but it can also dehydrate your body and prevent your liver from functioning properly.

How Can I Avoid Letting Holiday Stress Bring Me Down?

Are you ready to make some changes? Of course you are – nobody wants to feel lousy when there’s so much celebrating to do. Remember, you don’t have to accept every invitation that comes your way. It’s all about priorities – and your health should certainly be at the top of the list! Here are some ideas on how to make your holiday season more peaceful.

Let go of the past, and embrace the present

Have you been dragging your kids to three different holiday dinners, trying to make everyone else happy? Or baking six types of cookies every year, when you really don’t enjoy baking at all?

Take the time to think about where these traditions came from, then choose the ones that are important to you and your immediate family, not your parents or grandparents. Try writing out a list of all the events and traditions you follow, then share it with your family to determine which you want to keep, and which can go.

Speak up when you need support

Whether you’re battling serious depression or simply feeling a little blue, don’t hide it behind a mask of false joy. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, a counselor or clergy person if the expectations of the season are overwhelming you. Sometimes, when you’re feeling sad or disconnected, helping others can help you too. Volunteering during the holidays is a way to get more connected to your community. Just be sure you don’t agree to too much if you’re already feeling stretched to the limit.

Give yourself permission to say no

Take a look at the events and activities you are participating in – are they all true “yes” events? I read a great quote in Untamed by Glennon Doyle recently. She wrote, “Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else.” I couldn’t agree more! Your life is YOUR life, and invitations aren’t orders. It really is okay to say no.

Delegate tasks instead of trying to do it all yourself. Asking others to help out will ease feelings of resentment and anger that might be cropping up.

Saying no opens up space to do things for yourself. Just 15 minutes a day spent on something you love can make a huge difference. Read a book, meditate, do yoga stretches or just sit quietly with a cup of herbal tea.

Finally, say no to the idea that you must spend a fortune for gifts to be meaningful. The best gifts are those that show the recipient that you have been paying attention to who they really are, and what they love.

Make every movement count

When you have endless errands and events to attend to, squeezing in a trip to the gym or a formal exercise class is the last thing you want to do. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop moving altogether. Try parking at the far end of the lot and walking to the store, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. And if you already exercise regularly, now isn’t the time to let that go. Exercise is a natural stress buster, as it boosts metabolism, increases endorphins, and keeps cortisol levels steady.

Prioritize sleep

I know it’s hard to duck out of a party early, or put off the rest of the wrapping until the following day, but making sure you get enough sleep will help keep your stress levels down. Optimal brain function and mood regulation happen when adults get 7-9 hours of sleep consistently. If you know a late night is coming up, don’t schedule anything the following night. Stick to your regular bedtime whenever you are home – even if there are tasks left undone.

Pay close attention to nutrition

While the occasional holiday treat is okay, stick to healthier choices most of the time. I recommend the 80/20 rule — if you are eating well 80% of the time, you can afford to indulge the other 20%. Be sure to include protein and fruit or vegetables at every meal and snack. Don’t skip meals just because you overindulged the day before.

If you find yourself craving carbs and sugar, remember that white flour, white sugar and processed chemical ingredients only set you up for a crazy cycle of cravings. Instead of giving in to the quick fix, try a new recipe for a healthier version of your favorite comfort foods. Avoid alcohol or sweetened beverages, and opt for water or seltzer instead.

Don’t underestimate the power of a daily multivitamin to help keep you on an even keel through the holidays, and consider a targeted supplement like my Stress Ease to help get you over the stress hump.

Make this holiday season your most wonderful yet!

As I told Kara, we have a golden opportunity this year to add the things we truly missed last year back into our holiday season – and let go of things we didn’t miss at all! It’s all about really tuning in to your physical and emotional needs.

The thing I truly love about the holidays isn’t the gifts, parties, or even spending time with family, though all of that can be great. But for me, the best thing about this time of year is that it brings out belief in and hope for the world.

Peace and joy are on everyone’s mind during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true year-round? The holidays bring out the best in people. Feel-good stories are everywhere this time of year. My dream is that someday the “spirit of the holidays” will be the “spirit of life” instead.

That can’t happen until we all find the right balance for ourselves. This year, ease back into the “typical” holidays with intention. You just might find yourself singing along, truly believing it is the most wonderful time of the year – and extending that feeling far into the New Year too!