Coping with holiday stress

Be realistic with your expectations, and be willing to extend grace to yourself and others.
Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg in his office
Dr. Emanual Maidenberg (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

The holiday season may be billed as the most wonderful time of the year, but the reality can be quite different. 

There are a number of effective approaches to help minimize seasonal expectations and stressors, however.

Manage expectations

“During the holidays, we are conditioned by messages from advertisers and social media self-reports to expect excitement and joy,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. If the reality doesn’t measure up, people may feel let down, regardless of whether that “ideal” holiday scenario is even a good fit with personal circumstances and preferences. 

When planning holiday events, Dr. Maidenberg suggests “focusing on activities that are consistent with personal values.” This may include volunteering at a shelter, spending time in nature or even carving out time for reading or catching up on TV shows as a way to recharge. Not only will the experiences be more personally meaningful, they’ll help reduce the rampant busy-ness of the season by paring away the events that may have been added purely out of a sense of obligation.

It’s also important to note that for many, the holidays are yet one more layer on top of existing stressors, Dr. Maidenberg noted, including the after-effects of the pandemic, political polarization and recent and ongoing global conflicts. “As a society, we are experiencing a prolonged period of various stressors,” he said. “Considering all this, reflecting on how to spend the holiday season in ways that match our needs becomes even more important.”

Focus on mindfulness

That process starts with awareness, Dr. Maidenberg said. “The holidays are a good time to take a few minutes and reflect on how we perceive what happens and how we cope with it – how we receive information, how we process that information and how we respond to it.”

During times of stress, “we become more limited in terms of the tools that we have for problem solving or stress management,” he explained. “One of the impacts of stress is that we become quite focused on protecting ourselves and protecting our beliefs.”

When this happens, it can be helpful to take a step back from the specific situation at hand and reflect on what’s behind our responses. This includes examining “whether the attitude we have about other people or their thoughts and positions is dismissive or judgmental,” Dr. Maidenberg said. 

If this is the case, he suggests trying to shift into “a more curious state of mind, which includes trying to understand and hear and listen a little bit more than we typically do.”

How to keep from feeling depleted

It may also be possible to head off some of the stress of the holidays by avoiding overscheduling and by building in more time between activities.

“We often overschedule social interactions with friends or family members during the holidays, which can lead to under-sleeping, overeating and abandoning our self-care,” Dr. Maidenberg explained.

The result: being depleted physically and emotionally, which further lessens the ability to handle stressful situations.

“One of the impacts of stress is that we become quite focused on protecting ourselves and protecting our beliefs."

– Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg

When it comes to exercise, Dr. Maidenberg recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of cardio activity at least three times a week to help maintain positive mood in people who tend to experience anxiety or depression. 

Also key: getting enough sleep and maintaining a consistent bedtime and waketime schedule. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours of nightly sleep, but kids need even more: 8 to ten hours for teens (up to age 18), 9 to 11 hours for grade-school kids (up to age 13), and 10 to 13 hours for preschoolers.

In addition to helping maintain emotional resiliency, getting enough sleep helps provide a buffer for dealing with stress and also helps boost immunity – an aspect that takes on added importance as this year’s flu season gets underway. 

Finally, the shorter winter days may trigger seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression sometimes called “the winter blues,” which typically affects about 5% of the U.S. adult population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Although it’s more prevalent at more northern latitudes, where daylight is markedly reduced during the winter months, SAD can still affect Southern California residents, especially when days are gray. 

Handling stressful situations

For those who may already not be feeling their best, the stressful situations that often occur during the holidays may feel even more trying. These include:

Seasonal travel: Nearly half of the U.S. population plans to travel during this year’s holiday season, according to a recent survey from Deloitte. As health reservations about travel have receded, travel has rebounded: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recorded its busiest day ever for air travel on the day after Thanksgiving.

The combination of busy airports and other travel venues, coupled with potential weather disruptions, can ramp up holiday stress even further. Leaving plenty of time in the schedule for potential delays can help provide a buffer. 

Attitude is also an essential element, Dr. Maidenberg noted. “Unfortunately, the stress associated with travel can stand in the way of enjoyment,” he said.

What can help, Dr Maidenberg said, is “refocusing attention on what could be enjoyable and rewarding – being away from the context of predictability and repetition in our daily life, which can be exciting if we remain open and curious.” He recommends “reorienting attention to the here and now to create opportunities for joy.”

Dealing with difficult relatives: Gathering together a group of people who may already be stressed themselves for a seasonal event that’s freighted with expectations isn’t always a recipe for holiday cheer.

“We often find ourselves having to interact with relatives or family friends who trigger unpleasant negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, insecurity or boredom,” Dr. Maidenberg said. 

In an emotionally charged scenario such as an argument at the dinner table, an effective short-term solution can simply be removing yourself for a few minutes. “Take yourself away from the source, from what angers you or frustrates you,” he suggested, likening it to taking a timeout.

While you do so, “practice observing your thoughts without being engaged with them,” he said. “It’s really a form of meditation, when you focus on the breathing for a few minutes and you notice what goes through your mind, but you actually bring your attention back to the breathing right away.”

That said, however, this type of practice can be difficult to begin when you’re actually in the midst of a fraught situation. Instead, it’s best to focus on cultivating mindfulness training on an ongoing basis, Dr. Maidenberg said. “It’s one of the most effective things that we can do to help ourselves to deal with future stressors,” he noted.

A reminder to reframe

If you find yourself in a stressful holiday situation, he recommends reminding yourself of the following:

  • We are all trying to make the best of our life circumstances.
  • We all have limitations and personal histories that prime and shape our views, beliefs and preferences.
  • We do not have to agree in order to be kind and remain curious and open in our interactions with others.
  • We tend to feel better and become available to new experiences once we learn to override judgement and recognize that there may be more than one point of view on virtually anything.
  • We tend to become less distressed by practicing flexibility and acceptance.

Not every item will apply in every situation, Dr. Maidenberg noted. But by focusing on the ones that are relevant, he said, you can help increase the likelihood of “more satisfying and less stressful holiday interactions.”

Lisa L. Lewis is the author of this article.

Take the Next Step

Learn more about mindfulness practices through the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.