11 Ways Therapists Deal With Seasonal Stress Over the Holidays

Schedule downtime for yourself in between holiday obligations.
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It's easy to romanticize the holidays when they're around the corner yet find yourself overwhelmed once they've arrived. Images of sipping hot cocoa, building a snowman and gathering around the table with loved ones leave many of us hopeful for a magical holiday season, but reality doesn't always live up to expectations.


"There is a societal expectation that the holidays are supposed to be merry, festive and joyous, but the reality is that it's an incredibly stressful time when people struggle with increased depression and heightened anxiety caused by a variety of difficult situations," KathyDan Moore, LMFT, a therapist in St. Petersburg, Florida, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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The cause of seasonal stress is multi-layered. "The holidays punctuate the loss of loved ones, fractured family relationships or general lack of community," Moore says, adding that the season of giving also causes a financial strain for many families.

In addition, the holidays can be time-consuming. Between your regular routine and the pressure to attend holiday events, which often include travel, many people can feel depleted. By the time the holidays are in full swing, you may find yourself burned out and unable to enjoy the festivities you so looked forward to.

To make this time of year more enjoyable, here are some therapist-approved ways to cope with seasonal stress and practice self-care over the holidays.


1. Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Make Plans

One thing there never seems to be enough of is time. Time can creep up on you, so several of the therapists we spoke to emphasized making a plan ahead of time.

"Even though we all know the holidays are coming, we rarely plan for them and end up in the same patterns as previous years," notes Abbey Sangmeister, LPC, a therapist in Ocean City, New Jersey. "I encourage my clients to start planning for the holidays in September and October, and I do the same."


There are several ways you can get prepared: Confirm your travel plans in advance, create a holiday budget and schedule the most important events first.

2. Set Boundaries Around Your Time

In addition to meeting your own expectations around the holidays, your family may also place expectations on you. You may be expected to travel, make time commitments and contribute financially. If those expectations don't align with your own, it's OK to say no, says the American Psychiatric Association.



One way to get ahead of this is by setting boundaries, says Jeff Sounalath, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas.

"Place firm boundaries before entering the holiday season by setting the precedent of how involved and available you will be," he says. "Before your friends and family get into the holiday spirit and put on their rose-colored glasses, they can set their expectations according to your boundaries."


This can look like setting a monetary limit for gift exchanges, declining invitations that require travel and prioritizing the most meaningful events.

3. Find the Coping Skills That Work for You

Family relationships can be complicated, and the holidays have a way of bringing out those complications.


"Family stressors can be one of the biggest ones around the holiday season," says Sangmeister. "Sometimes we fall into old roles within our family that no longer serve us or are no longer who we are when we aren't with family."

Spending time with family can also bring up verbal triggers. You may not think fondly on the thought of visiting home if you anticipate questions about your personal life that feel more like an interrogation.


"Family members may ask questions about your parenting style, relationship status, job status, political views and more," Sangmeister says.

While families may hold different viewpoints, the Mayo Clinic Health System recommends focusing on your similarities.

To make these situations less uncomfortable, Sangmeister recommends tapping into your coping skills, which may vary by person.


For Sangmeister, she makes sure to get movement out in nature and regularly journals her thoughts. For others, coping might include meditation, deep breathing and taking breaks.

4. Seek Out Glimmers

If you haven't heard of glimmers, they're often described as being the opposite of triggers. "They're small moments that bring you a sense of peace, comfort or joy," Sangmeister explains.

Like practicing mindfulness, you can find glimmers all around you when you slow down and live in the present moment. They can be as simple as feeling the warmth around a comforting cup of hot chocolate, Sangmeister says.

"When you struggle to find them, look back at old photos or do something you love," she adds.

5. Schedule Time for Yourself Between Holiday Events

The holidays are a time of generosity and charitable giving, but it's also important to implement some self-care. One of Sounalath's top tips is to budget time for yourself when planning out your holiday calendar, especially in between the big events.

"Time to yourself is valuable and needed for you to function to the best of your ability," he says, adding that he schedules downtime for himself in his own calendar.

You also shouldn't shy away from taking time off work, notes Sangmeister.

"Around the holidays, many of us feel drawn to working more to support ourselves financially," she explains, adding this rings true among mental health professionals.

There's an increased demand for mental health services during the holidays, leaving them overextended and stretched thin. This might sound like a familiar feeling if you also work longer hours during the holidays, leading to burnout.


To cope with this, Sangmeister plans to take time off during the holidays. "I take time off so I can be more grounded and enjoy the season, which makes me a better therapist," she says.

6. Get Involved With Your Community

The holidays can stir up a lot of emotions, including loneliness. It's not uncommon to feel isolated during this time, and these feelings may be increased if you're grieving the loss of someone close to you, Moore says.

Moore recommends getting involved with your community to combat loneliness.

"Reach out to an organization and donate your time," she says.

There's a lot of research on the benefits of volunteering. Helping others can reduce stress, increase happiness and confidence and give you a sense of purpose, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Giving Tuesday, the fourth Tuesday of November, is a great time to get started. It's a global movement that focuses on kindness and giving.

If you're feeling lost or lonely, find a local organization that participates and get involved. You'll likely meet new people, get extra movement and improve your mental wellbeing — all while giving back.

7. Maintain Your Regular Routine

With the hustle and bustle of holiday events, your regular routine and healthy habits may be pushed to the back burner. Long walks on the weekends may be replaced by parties and functions, your typical meal plan may be disrupted by holiday treats (and more alcohol than usual) and your budget may be thrown off by the season of giving.

One way to take back some control is to prioritize your regular routine, says Peta-Gaye Sandiford, LMHC, a New York City-based therapist.


"Maintaining healthy habits will decrease the likelihood of distress," she says.

She recommends the basics, like getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.

You may also want to watch how much you drink — alcohol might give you a warm-and-fuzzy feeling in the moment, but it ultimately leads to chemical changes in your brain that can leave you feeling angry, depressed or anxious, according to the UK's Mental Health Foundation.

Sandiford says to reframe how you think about holiday plans: "Instead of adjusting your routine to make holiday plans work, try fitting your holiday plans into your existing routine."

8. Lean on Your Support System to Prevent Burnout

Burnout is often associated with the workplace, but it can also happen around the holidays. Working longer hours, spending more time at social functions and feeling overwhelmed from the financial and time commitments that come with the holidays can all lead to burnout.

Some of the signs of burnout include fatigue, headaches, dietary changes and poor sleep, per the Cleveland Clinic.

To get ahead of holiday burnout, Sangmeister recommends having a support system in place. A support system is a network of trusted people you can turn to for support when you're in need. They can support you by listening without judging, validating your feelings and motivating you to continue.

Trusted friends and family members make for a good support system, but your network can also include your colleagues and mental health professionals. Sangmeister recommends surrounding yourself with colleagues who align with you and your own goals and seeking therapy for additional support.

It's also OK to be selective in who you surround yourself with, Sangmeister says. "You can 'break up' with relationships that no longer serve you or drain your energy," she says.

9. Find Ways to Honor Loved Ones Who Have Passed

The holidays can be hard, but coping with grief can make them even harder. They can present challenges for those who are grieving, such as triggering memories of the past and igniting intense emotions.

"No matter how long ago someone passed, those memories still come up," Sangmeister says.

One way to cope with holiday grief is to find ways to honor that person.

"It can be very empowering to bring the memories of a loved one who has passed into the celebration," she notes.

The Hospice Foundation of America recommends acknowledging someone who has passed by giving a toast in their honor, lighting a candle or holding a moment of silence.

10. Restructure Gift Giving to Alleviate the Financial Burden

Holiday costs can add up quickly. Travel expenses, gift-giving, elaborate meals, decorations and other expenses can place a strain on your budget.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans experience financial stress, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. Tack on the hidden costs of the holiday season, and that stress is likely going to be compounded.

To make the holidays less about money and more about spending time with the people you care about, Moore recommends restructuring gift-giving.

"Talk to your friends and family about changing how you collectively give gifts," she says. "Friends and family will understand and appreciate your honesty about the financial pressure and it can be fun to get imaginative about other ways to show your loved ones how much you care."

Some ways to save money on gift-giving include exchanging homemade gifts, investing in a group experience, setting a maximum dollar amount for gifts and drawing names for a gift exchange.

11. Embrace Indoor, Weather-Friendly Activities

Holiday stressors can coincide with seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The cold outside weather can drive you indoors, making your typical activities less enjoyable.

To shake the seasonal depression symptoms, Sounalath recommends staying active. You might have to be flexible, though. During the warmer months, you may look forward to going for walks, attending sporting events or going out with friends. Seasonal changes may detour your plans, but it's still important to maintain daily stimulation, Sounalath says.

"Embrace indoor activities that can be enjoyed year-round," he notes, recommending hobbies like crafting, cooking, playing board games or doing yoga.

It's also easy to self-isolate during the holidays when the cold weather creeps in.

"Having hobbies that you do in a group setting can be extremely beneficial during the holiday season because it can motivate you to schedule social events with your friends and family," Sounalath says.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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