Hard Times at the Holidays-Tips for Holiday Stress Management

The holiday season is a time for family and festivities, but it can also be an emotional time when we feel stress, sadness
and fatigue.

marshmallow man floating in hot cocoa.

Peninsula, a division of Parkwest Medical Center, offers a free downloadable guide to help you manage the stress of the season. The guide is intended for everyone, not just those who may be struggling with behavioral health issues.

Peninsula’s Holiday Survival Guide includes expert advice on common holiday stressors such as managing money, juggling schedules and coping with loneliness. It addresses
how to deal with difficult relationships, managing anger and tips for people with addictive behaviors such as alcohol and drug dependency.

Laurel Proulx, LCSW, clinical social worker at Peninsula, has additional tips to manage stress and be mindful during the holiday season.

Laurel Proulx, LCSW, clinical social worker

She says, “It is OK if the holidays are a difficult time for you. It may appear that everyone is joyful and celebrating, especially in a time where social media often shows friends’ and families ‘highlight reels’ of their lives. This is simply not the truth. Some people find part or all of the holidays difficult and stressful, or experience grief during the holidays.” If the holidays are a difficult time for you, here are some tips to consider.


People who have lost someone, experienced a negative life event during the holiday season, or have had other losses during the holiday season may experience grief during the holidays.

Recognizing your feelings is a big first step to managing grief. Understanding that you are feeling loss or grief and why you are grieving helps you develop coping strategies, self-care plans, and positive ways to deal with emotions that you experience. This empowers
you to help yourself and possibly to grow, shape, and evolve future holidays in positive ways.

For example, if you lost your grandmother recently and the holiday meal was always at her house, plan ahead to develop a new tradition that carries on part of the past and evokes positive memories of the lost loved one. In this example, maybe
everyone picks their favorite dish she cooked and brings it to the meal, or you all spend time decorating the tree with her ornaments. The specifics of the plan are less important than thinking through options and doing what feels right in your situation.

Dealing with difficulties

Holidays can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Difficult does not have to mean bad. Holidays may be difficult because you have to travel far with little kids, family you wanted to see cannot attend, or money is tight. Perhaps family emergencies or financial burdens sneak up, someone had a relapse on drugs or alcohol, you have seasonal depression, or health concerns appear.

Practicing daily maintenance skills can significantly help keep your base level of well-being intact while helping you manage additional stressors. Daily maintenance skills include getting enough sleep, taking medications as prescribed, following an exercise routine, limiting caffeine intake, eating well-balanced meals, and talking to your support system.

Take time to write out a list of things you must do daily to feel well, and create a second list of things you can add as needed to maintain your well-being. Your list may include follow-up with your primary care doctor, speaking to a therapist, asking for help from friends or family, treating yourself to something that makes you feel good, using additional coping skills, etc.

Cover of 2023 Hanbook

Stress management

Holidays can be stressful whether they are difficult or joyful times for you. Holidays add to already full plates. There are many additional tasks, time commitments, and temptations that may counter efforts toward well-being (abundant alcohol and food, for example).

Routinely and intentionally using stress management coping skills is great place to start. Plan time daily for things that help with stress reduction such as exercise, talking to your support system, doing something creative or for self-expression, practicing mindfulness or relaxation skills, etc.

Sometimes, despite our efforts, we may feel overwhelmed or in crisis during the holidays. One way to help manage this is holiday crisis planning.

Crisis planning is a process of identifying what is important to you or motivates you to get through the difficult time, along with triggers for symptoms or warning signs that you are struggling. Crisis planning helps with emotions or effects the hard time is having on you, and with identifying support system resources.

Possible triggers during the holidays include alcohol use, lack of sleep, family conflict, and financial stress.

Warning signs may include feeling irritated or easily angered, not sleeping well, increased use of alcohol to cope with stress, feeling depressed, lack of motivation, or increased isolation.

Here are some possible coping skills: Set and keep a budget. Start buying gifts, plane tickets, etc., earlier so that the holidays are not one large expense. Plan your time to include adequate rest and breaks, have a plan to leave holiday gatherings if conflict arises, make and follow a schedule if there are many demands on your time.

So when the holiday season causes you anxiety and stress, be mindful – and give yourself the present.

For more tips on how to make your holiday brighter and less stressful, visit PeninsulaBehavioralHealth.org/guide.

Focus on the Good

Wellness is something we cultivate and maintain for ourselves. It is an active process even during the holidays. Consider: what does wellness look like to you during the holidays? Would it be spending time with family while still maintaining your
health goals? Is it keeping a balanced budget? Is it managing even “good stress” in a healthy way? All of these things? Once you have an idea of what wellness looks like to you, make a plan to maintain or build it for yourself. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Maintain the important aspects of your routine (consider factors like sleep, diet, work/life balance, physical and mental health maintenance tasks).
  2. Build in time for gratitude. You might do this by writing thank-you cards, taking time during family meals to say one thing you are grateful for, or keeping a journal of things you are grateful for throughout the day.
  3. Practice kindness towards others. Helping others helps us, so by practicing kindness to others we are actually helping ourselves. There are social and physical benefits in helping others. It releases neurochemicals that produce joy and also helps (in certain circumstance) deepen social ties.
  4. Have healthy boundaries. Be mindful of saying “yes” to everything and make sure to take heed of your own wants and needs during the holiday season. For example, it’s definitely OK to be helpful to friends and family, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of your own well-being.
  5. Use positive affirmations to help mitigate or change negative thoughts, such as progress, not perfection” when thinking about various holiday goals.
  6. Be in the moment, the current situation, and focus on the things going well in that time. Remember, wellness is active. By putting some thought, time, and effort into your own wellness, you help yourself keep the holidays bright.

Is It More Than the Blues? When to Seek Professional Help

During winter months some individuals experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), brought on by decreased exposure to sunlight. Others experience holiday blues that last a few days. But sometimes feelings go beyond the blues or SAD and are serious signs of depression.

If you or a loved one have holiday blues that seem to be lingering, watch for the following signs:

  • Constant sadness or irritability
  • Loss of interest in pleasures once enjoyed
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Inexplicable changes in weight, appetite or sleeping habits
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

Help is Available

Peninsula has a wide range of behavioral health services. Inpatient services are available with around-the-clock care for individuals in crisis who need stabilization. Outpatient services include psychotherapy, medication management services and case management. We also offer many therapy and support groups.

The Recovery Education Center helps people understand behavioral health problems and develop skills to help prevent
debilitating symptoms. The Peer Support Program helps individuals stay connected and socialize with others. Some groups are for patients of Peninsula and others are free to the public.

For more information, refer to the Holiday Survival Guide available here: PeninsulaBehavioralHealth.org/guide.

Staying Connected

During the hustle and bustle of the season, we sometimes forget the simple joy of spending time creating memories with loved ones. Here are just a few suggestions to help you connect or reconnect during the holidays:

Break bread. Have a sit-down meal with members of your household at least four times a week – or as many times as possible. Concentrate on eating mindfully.

Make reservations. Reserve part of your weekdays and weekends to spend some one-on-one time with each of your children. Spend the first 15 minutes after you or your child arrives home to talk about the day’s activities.

Maintain traditions. Many inherited values are communicated through holiday traditions. In a family setting, maintain traditions or rituals in creative ways that convey purpose, even if your family situation is different from years past.

Do a holiday project together. Make holiday cards to send to long-distance family and friends, or make some of the gifts you plan to give together. Homemade holiday cookies or ornaments are fun, collaborative projects.

Reminisce together. Pull out photos and share memories sparked by the images. Home movies are a good way to teach your children about their relatives. Share your own childhood traditions, and even recreate them. By reliving those traditions, you are connecting the past with the present and strengthening the bond between generations.

Share the gift of giving. Donate new toys, pick a child’s name off a community angel tree or plan a holiday meal for a needy family.

Celebrating the holidays without substances

Tips and tricks for supporters:

  • Don’t make a big deal out of someone abstaining.
  • Accept no for an answer.
  • Support people in personal choices.
  • Don’t ask why people decline.

Tips for those celebrating without substances:

  • Have an exit strategy or back-up plan.
  • Plan a response to people who pry.
  • Develop a plan to manage triggers.
  • Keep in contact with your support system.

Peninsula can help you manage your stress. For help, visit PeninsulaBehavioralHealth.org or call 865-970-9800.

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