Tips for Coping with Stress, Depression and the Holidays

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"The holidays" are quickly approaching, and whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid, or other dates, you might eagerly await the activities. If you are able to jump in and enjoy everything, I surmise your experience is different from many others' holidays. Most of you will experience some level of stress during the next few weeks.


Maybe you think stress cannot be avoided, and that you'll just be a "nervous wreck", wish the holidays would just go away, or end up sick, disappointed, or out of sorts. Well, I'd like you to know there are some ways to cope better with this stress so that you actually can enjoy the celebrations, keep healthy, and enter the new calendar year with a sense of joy, accomplishment, and positive anticipation.

The "red-letter" days are so close that you cannot really do anything about some things; so don't beat yourself up about not getting started earlier on your housecleaning, baking, shopping, correspondence, and invitations. You can, however, take some actions now to avoid hassles, relationship conflicts, the feelings you might not be doing enough, or even the dread of failing at making this year great for everyone.

First, let's review some of the pressures and demands that might create stress for you.

Time: How will you find the time to prepare for and engage in all the things needing to be done? We feel the pressures of time acutely, especially when we think we don't have "enough" time. What and when does something have to be done? Who can make time, who has no time, and is there ever enough time?

Finances: It seems finances are increasingly a concern, and increasingly a bigger concern for us. It may be that you have only recently had to assess how much money you have for the necessities of daily life, and if there is any left over for the things you've considered important and necessary for your holidays in the past. You may, however, have been stressed about your finances for months to years, given the economic status of Americans in recent history. You might be anticipating there could be changes in your income, outgo, and reserves, due to employment, or lack thereof. Oh, and we cannot forget that our costs are increasing and prices higher for almost everything. The values and management of finances is often a sphere of conflict in families even in the best of times, so the holidays can create greater consternation.

Schedule demands: Your schedules undoubtedly involve activities to maintain your home, activities to support your family and friends, your community, and your affiliations, activities outside the home for work or play, and activities for your own health maintenance, like exercise, checkups, and hobbies. During the holidays, there are additional religious, school, organization, and work events. People want you to attend. You want to be involved. If your schedule has to mesh with others in your environment, (and whose doesn't?), the demands are even greater, and involve more coordination. Rituals, traditions, new opportunities through growth and changes in our kinship, schools and places of worship, families, and our desires are deeply ingrained and highly valued.

Expectations and Emotional factors: Check your thinking: do you have high expectations to do everything, and to do everything perfectly? Perfection is a difficult goal – for anyone.

No matter what your stresses, and their sources, these are some basic tips for coping with them.

1. Acknowledge your feelings. This could be a very emotional time of year for you. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season. Create a positive dialogue for yourself, reminding yourself what you love about this time of year, and what is important.

2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

3. Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.

4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. Be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too. It is important to think about how to decrease conflict and increasing your acceptance of other people. More often than not if you try not to take things too personally you will be happier and your friends and family will too.

5. Recognize and be okay with frustration. In working with people, I hear them beating themselves up over the fact that every minute of every event was not perfect, joyous and without disagreements, irritations, upset. The chances frustration will occur is even greater, because at this busy time of year, we often mix together many people who do not normally spend much time together; and if people move in for the holidays, no matter how much you care about them, there are bound to be moments of, shall we say, unfriendliness.

6. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Instead, try these alternatives: donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.

7. Plan ahead. Now, as you read earlier, any wide-spread planning would be difficult at this date, but there are some things still amenable to early preparation. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That will help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. Make sure to line up help for party preparation and cleanup. Perhaps most important, seek input from those you will share the holidays with, and be flexible. Communicate what is important to each person, what must be done, and what can wait until another year or time.

8. Communicate in ways that take care of you, and make life a little easier for you and those around you. Learn to say, "No." Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no to a boss or friend, try to let something else go.

9. Use humor. This is not about being able to tell funny stories or jokes. It is more about seeing the lighter side of life, identifying the ironies, and not taking yourself too seriously. Put others at ease, and you will feel calmer.

10. Express gratitude. It is so easy when everyone is expressing demands, upsets, irritations, and outlandish expectations to begin to feel negative, resentful, and unappreciated. Find something or someone for which you are grateful. It might be that you are the only one who knows what you are grateful for; but if you are grateful for something you can share, the sharing itself creates a sense of connection and calm.

11. Take time for yourself. It is imperative that you maintain your energy, perspective, and confidence in yourself. Certainly, saying no sometimes, keeping calm, communicating clearly, and attending to your own feelings takes care of you. You will also want to use healthy habits, rest when necessary, and take care of any feelings and behaviors that are out of your control. Do what you think will be comfortable for you. Remember, you can always choose to do things differently next time.

12. Maintain healthy habits. Balance is a key concept. It just doesn't do your body any good to overindulge in took much food, alcohol, or even medications for anxiety, pain, and sleep. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Get plenty of both sleep and physical activity.

13. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spend just 15 minutes without distractions or interruptions. This will refresh you enough so you can handle what you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Luxuriate in a bath. Stroke your pet. Breathe deeply. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

14. Seek professional help if you need it. Sometimes, our reactions to all the activity and expectations causes more stress than we can handle or ease. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, bothered by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, unable to face routine chores, and at what feels like the worst, feel depressed and unable to enjoy the holiday. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Above all, bear in mind that there is no "right" way to handle holidays, anniversaries, or birthdays. You and your family may decide to try several different approaches before finding one that feels best for you. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!


CharleneG. Gooch, PhD, MFT

Family Profiles