Holiday Stress Toolkit - Handel Behavioral Health
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Holiday Stress Toolkit

Practice Tips for Coping with Holiday Stress

December 22, 2023

Amy Mauro

From last-minute shopping, to preparing for tense conversations with in-laws, and following traditions you now find outdated, being jolly and bright isn’t always easy during the holiday season. 

For many people, the holiday season presents a dizzying list of demands: traveling, shopping, baking, cooking, cleaning, and entertaining to name a few. 

It’s no wonder that nearly 89% of US adults say that concerns such as not having enough money, missing loved ones, and preparing for family conflicts cause them stress this time of year, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. 

While the ever growing to-do list is a source of worry during this holiday season, perhaps the pressure we put on ourselves about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to celebrate is the underlying source of stress and sadness. 

We know that we can’t force ourselves to feel cheerful, and in fact trying too hard to make ourselves feel happy can make us feel even more lonely and depressed

So, how can we cultivate an attitude of connection, gratitude, and fulfillment this holiday season, if and when we’re already feeling emotionally maxed-out?

We asked three of our mental health clinicians and clinical supervisors with HBH, Greg Handel, PhD, Kelly Corrao-Fisher, LMHC, and Alexandra Malin, LMHC to offer their practice tips.

1. Make space for feelings like grief, sadness, and overwhelm

If you’re feeling lonely, overwhelmed, distressed, or depressed during the holidays, you are not alone. The holiday season can stir up feelings of pain and loneliness for many. 

For those of us who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, memories of the holidays can serve as constant reminders of the loss.

The first step to coping with painful emotions is to acknowledge and affirm your feelings. Reflect and recognize how you feel by writing journal prompts like: 

  • I’m grieving the loss of …
  • The most difficult time of day is … 
  • My favorite memory is … 
  • My support system includes … 
  • I wish my friends would say or do … 
  • It is hurtful when people … 
  • It is helpful when people …
  • The things that help me most right now are …
  • When I’m alone I … 
  • I will lean on … 

Whatever emotion comes up for you is valid. Honor yourself by trying to accept how you feel in the moment.

2. Learn how to say no without feeling guilty

Let’s face it, many of us experience dread and overwhelm with the pressure to say “yes” to every holiday invite that comes our way.  

The good news is that we can let ourselves off the hook and learn how to say no to activities that we don’t feel comfortable or fulfilling to us this year.

Take a moment to be honest with yourself about the people you love to spend time with and the events that feel meaningful to you. 

When you’ve decided which invites you’d like to turn down, change your words and come up with phrases that offer the person grace and compassion. Words such as, 

  • “Thank you for asking and thinking of me but I don’t think I’ll make it this year.”
  • “It sounds like fun but I’m already overcommitted this week. Perhaps we could get together after the holidays?”

Avoid ruminating over feelings of guilt and shame and remind yourself that you deserve to create a holiday that brings you peace and joy, even if that doesn’t suit everyone’s wants.

3. Create your own holiday traditions

Many of us celebrate holiday activities because we feel like we have to or because it’s tradition. 

It can be isolating when we no longer feel connected or comfortable with long-standing traditions. Perhaps some of those traditions are associated with rigid rules or traumatic memories that no longer serve us. 

Remember, there’s no right way to celebrate the holidays and you don’t have to engage in activities that genuinely make you uncomfortable.

Instead, try to find your own ways to celebrate by engaging in meaningful and worthwhile activities- such as creating art, pursuing hobbies, volunteering, or nurturing relationships.

4. Set realistic expectations for yourself

Setting realistic expectations for yourself can involve setting boundaries by being honest about what you can accomplish in a specific time frame and not overextending yourself. 

1. Identify which tasks, events, and activities you’ll be able to show to fully.

2. Create a budget for gifts before you max-out your credit card on presents for your immediate family, and leave your in-laws empty handed.

3. Speak to your loved one’s about a backup plan, in case of travel complications. 

4. Lastly, delegate tasks to others if you’re already feeling stretched too thin.

5. Create your own self-care routine

While the holidays can be an excellent time to appreciate the people in your life, don’t forget to appreciate yourself. 

Nurture your relationship with yourself by engaging in your own self-care routine. Practices like meditation, exercise, reading, a hobby that you enjoy, or journaling can be scheduled into your busy day and keep you grounded amidst the hustle and bustle.

6. Stay active

We tend to spend a lot of time being sedentary during the winter, yet our stress levels are likely to increase during the holiday season. While higher levels of stress aren’t only caused by a lack of physical activity, the lethargy doesn’t help. 

Exercise can help lift our mood, reduce our stress level, and help us give ourselves some time to “decompress.” 

The following list offers some concrete ways that we can work some exercise into our busy days: 

  • Going for a walk outside
  • Taking a hike with your friend or a family member
  • Throwing around the football with someone
  • Taking your dog to the dog park and/or playing fetch with your dog
  • Trying out an online exercise program in the comfort of your own home
  • Putting on some music you really like and dancing

7. Create a relapse prevention plan

If you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder, the holiday season can throw many obstacles your way. Busy schedules, the pressure of meeting deadlines and financial obligations, stressful relationships resurfacing, and feelings of grief and loss can fill the holiday season with potential triggers for relapse. 

An effective relapse prevention plan can help you maintain sobriety- your first priority- in the face of temptation. 

A relapse prevention plan includes: 

  • Coping skills: list of activities or skills you enjoy that can get your mind off using
  • Social support: list of three people who you can talk to if you are thinking about using
  • Consequences: how will your life change if you relapse? How about if you stay sober?

Tips to avoid relapse: 

  • Cravings will eventually pass. Do your best to distract yourself and ride it out. 
  • Don’t become complacent. Relapse can happen years after you’ve quit using. It probably won’t ever be safe to “have just one.”
  • Avoid situations that you know will put you at risk of relapse: spending time with friends who use drugs or alcohol or going to places that remind you of your past use. 
  • The decision to relapse is made when you put yourself in risky situations, long before you actually use. 
  • Don’t view relapse as a failure. Falling back into old patterns because of a slip will only make the situation worse.

8. Give yourself the gift of compassion

We can often be hard on ourselves and focus on the should haves or could haves as we approach a new year. 

Release the guilt of not having done all the things on your “to do list” and focus on what you did accomplish. 

Create a list of all the things you managed to do this year or do something creative like create a piece of art that represents your growth.

9. Stay connected with your therapist

If you’re already in therapy, try to prioritize any regularly scheduled therapy appointment. 

Your therapist will help you explore any potential triggers or difficult emotions that may come up prior to, during, or after the holidays.

If you know that you’re going out of town, and you typically meet with your therapist in-person, ask your therapist for a virtual appointment

Open communication with your therapist is essential for aligning your needs with their availability during the busy season.

The take-away

At Handel Behavioral Health, our trained therapists and counselors know that the holidays can bring a mixture of joyful and difficult emotions, and that it’s human to experience both! 

We can all work toward holding pain and joy together, and cultivating an attitude of appreciation for ourselves and others throughout. 

Our trained therapists and clinicians are here for you all year long, and will help you navigate the holiday season with more compassion and confidence in yourself. 

To start working with one of our therapists in our offices in Franklin, Amherst, West Springfield, Wilbraham, Natick, or online throughout the state of Massachusetts, contact us today at (413) 343-4357.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.

Sarah Presson Headshot

Sarah has extensive experience working as a clinician, and has been in the field for nearly two decades. She has worked in community mental health settings providing support to local communities and families. Sarah has also worked as a Social Worker in multiple levels of care, both in outpatient, inpatient and crisis settings. More About Author →

Greg Handel Headshot

Greg has more than 35 years of experience providing positive life supports for individuals, couples and families. He has worked in several different environments including inpatient and outpatient mental health centers, rehabilitation facilities, congregate residential settings and in private practice. More About Author →

Alexandra  Malin Headshot

Alexandra has been a practitioner in the field for 16 years.  She has a Masters of Art in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University and is licensed as a Mental Health Counselor in the state of Massachusetts. She has had the pleasure of training masters and doctoral level clinicians and interns and truly loves teaching others about mental health. More About Author →

Kelly  Corrao-Fisher Headshot

Kelly received her graduate degree from Westfield State University with her masters in Psychology focusing in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She has been in the counseling field for over 15 years working with adolescents and adults in a variety of settings ranging from residential, collegiate, inpatient, outpatient and crisis. More About Author →