The holiday season is here, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear more than just the sounds of “Silent Night” playing in the background. Those other sounds you hear may be the cries of stressed out shoppers, overwhelmed parents, sales clerks and children, who are overdosing on sweets and other holiday goodies.

Or maybe it’s the voice in your own head nagging you to take advantage of the latest online shopping deal that ends at midnight, fretting about forgetting a gift for someone or ruminating incessantly about the logistics of shopping, baking, cooking, traveling, etc.

For me, the season is mostly merry—a time of year I look forward to. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a family of six children so I’m fairly comfortable with chaos in general. After all, when chaos is an everyday occurrence, holiday “craziness” isn’t really a thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’ve never experienced holiday stress but it’s usually tied to finances—having too many gifts to buy and not enough resources.

For many others, everything about the holidays feels like a chore or an unwanted obligation. The season is something that fills them with anxiety instead of happiness. How is it that for so many the stress beast seems to come a calling shortly after the Halloween decorations start disappearing? Why are the holidays dreaded by some and when did the “most wonderful time of the year” become the most despised?

If you suffer from what I call HAT days—long periods of feeling Horrible, Awful, Terrible from November 1st through early January—here is some expert advice to help you experience less stress and more joy.

Nine Strategies to Keep You Calm and Help You Carry On  

Psycom spoke to three experts: Julie Potiker, mindfulness expert and author of Life Falls Apart, but You Don’t Have To: Mindful Methods for Staying Calm In the Midst of Chaos, Bradley Nelson, DC, holistic physician and author of The Emotion Code and Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW Psycom contributing editor and therapist in Queens, New York. Their advice may help you look past the consumerism—and other triggers of stress—and find meaning and happiness in the holiday season.

#1. Shift your perspective. “Stepping back for a moment from what you are feeling to observe it instead can enable you to handle even the most stressful holiday moments,” says Potiker who is also founder of the Balanced Mind Meditation Center in southern California. She suggests focusing on loving-kindness, and not perfection. “We all get so wrapped up in things being perfect for the holidays. Focusing on simply doing things with love takes a lot of that stress away,” she added.

#2. Make a list and put your mind at ease. Amatenstein says nothing clears your head better than a good old-fashioned list. It can be old school paper and pen or a high-tech list on your smartphone. Write down the gifts you intend to purchase or make, your allotted budget, decorating tasks, etc. and prioritize what needs to be done. “Holidays are stressful even for people with even temperaments. Setting aside some time to think about the events/activities that you enjoy most can guide you in taking small, concrete steps to accomplish them in a joyful way,” she explains. “Then, deal with one thing at a time—decorate one afternoon; bake a few batches of cookies the next; write out holiday cards as you watch a mindless show on television; otherwise it’s easy to get overwhelmed.”

#3. Bury the past. For some people, their holidays are haunted by ghosts of Christmas past—childhood disappointment, long-ago arguments that have strained family relationships or other behavior you found hurtful. Experts say it’s important to let all of that go and remember what’s most important—preserving the relationship.

Nelson admits it can be difficult to escape the depression and anxiety caused by past events around the holiday season. “Do you ever feel like you are struggling under the weight of something you can’t quite put your finger on?” asks Nelson. “Perhaps your life is not turning out how you had hoped. Perhaps your attempts to form lasting relationships never seem to work out. You may wish that certain events in your past had never occurred, but feel powerless to move beyond them.”

To overcome holiday depression and anxiety, think about the parts of your life that are going well. “It can be helpful to list your blessings,” he says. When people are stressed and depressed, they tend to focus on the negative things in their lives rather than counting their blessings. There is always something to be thankful for.

#4. Make time to move. Exercise truly is a great way to beat depression and stress. You don’t have to join a gym or commit to a 60-minute daily workout. A short, brisk walk outside does wonders to lift your mood. Plus, it’s a natural, drug-free way to combat the blues. If you have a sedentary job, set your phone to remind you to periodically move throughout the day.

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Moving rids the body of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol that can otherwise linger in your system for up to 24 hours, damaging your immune system and organs. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that endorphins produced by physical activity act as natural painkillers and also improve the ability to sleep, important since rest is also a stress reducer. Other ways to produce endorphins? Meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy and breathing deeply.

#5. Discover and release emotional baggage. It’s possible to free yourself of a major underlying cause of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, phobias and other forms of mental illness by learning to release trapped emotions, says Nelson. Trapped emotions are uncomfortable feelings that you may consciously or unconsciously avoid. When bad feelings aren’t resolved they become trapped and can be a source of stress. “If you acknowledge the pain or ‘baggage’ from the past, it won’t weigh you down,” he explains. “Recognize that it happened and consciously let it go.” There is value in strong emotion. Feelings have a purpose wisdom/insight can be gained by acknowledging that.

#6. Be flexible. All three experts agree that the most common reason people become stressed around the holidays is that their expectations are not met. They thought the holiday meal with all of the relatives wouldn’t end up with people arguing. Or, that heir children would behave and stay happy while being dragged along on marathon shopping trips.

When you are flexible, you realize that not everything will always turn out the way you hoped it would. Being flexible helps you realize that if things turn out differently, it’s not the end of the world. Flexible people are rarely stressed, and can usually avoid HAT days without any problem at all.

#7. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Amatenstein says it’s important to remind yourself what means most about the holidays—spending time with loved ones. “So, even if you forget to send Great Aunt Selma a Christmas card, life will go on!” (Besides, you can always mail her a handwritten note in the New Year.) Consider that homemade treats or gifts of your time are most often more appreciated than sweaters or new gadgets.

#8. Find humor in the madness.  Laughter is often the best medicine and an excellent way to beat holiday stress and anxiety. Read the comics, watch a funny movie or check out Standup for Mental Health, an organization that helps individuals living with mental illness turn their problems into comedy, then perform their acts at conferences, treatments centers, and other mental health-related organizations. Founder David Granirer, is a counselor, stand up comic and author who lives with depression—watch his hilarious act on YouTube.

#9. Experience the spirituality of the season in whatever way it resonates with you. For many families, Christmas simply means a visit from Santa Claus. Others find spirituality in nature, music or art. Listening to seasonal music at a local high school—or attending a professional performance at a church or other venue—can be an uplifting way to spend an evening.

If organized religious services are part of your tradition, focusing on the story of the Nativity can be a tremendous source of relief and comfort. Belonging to a church, mosque or synagogue can expand your support network, give you a purpose, help you feel less alone, and become a place to share the burden of difficult challenges as well as the joys of life.

Don’t let this holiday season be a time of stress and unhappiness for you. Embrace the many positive aspects of the season and remember that the simple act of making someone else happy with a gift, card or other expressions of love is just about the best way I know of to make yourself feel better, too. Don’t believe me? Try holding the door or smiling at the next stranger you come across and see for yourself.



Last Updated: Mar 28, 2019