The Holidays Are Hard; Here's How To Manage Holiday Stress

Holiday Season Can Cause Stress

The holiday season is upon us and with it, increased stress. Greeting cards and television programs make holiday events look so easy and careless; a fabulous meal, well-behaved family members, house guests with manners, gifts presented in flawless wrapping, and the list goes on.

What We Expect Normally Isn't How It Goes

How many times have we envisioned a similar event for our own families?  And how often does the actual event live up to the one in our mind?  I venture to guess, never.  Hence the signs I’ve seen that read “Martha Stewart does not live here.”

Is it possible to have pleasant holiday events?  Are we doomed to suffer in comparison to picture perfect holiday gatherings? (Let me pause and say that when I say “holiday events” I am speaking about major holidays, but also birthdays, Labor Day barbeques, work parties and any gathering where friends, family or co-workers come together.) I believe that we can create our own ideas of what a holiday or family event could and should be, and be satisfied with the event and not “what could have been.”

Tips for Decreasing Holiday Stress

I would like to share with you the TINSEL Holiday Strategy from a group I lead called STEPPS or Systems Training for Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving.

Take a look at the list below and see how it could benefit an upcoming holiday event:

Tell others what you want and what is important to you as part of your celebration.

Inquire about what is important to others’ celebrations.

Negotiate how you will celebrate.  Recognize that the holidays often bring together people with different family traditions.

Share the work/responsibility.  Some people are good at seeing what work needs to be done; others need a reminder or scheduling.  Mind-reading is an easy trap to fall into and can be easily avoided by communicating before and during the event.

Enjoy the reality (stay in the present).  Rather than dwelling on the ways your holiday does not fit the fantasy, find ways of enjoying the reality.

Limit yourself and respect the boundaries of others.  Decide on your own limits and stick to them.  There are limits to how much time even close friends and family can comfortably share time and space without a break.  People need time to themselves.


I want to speak to gifts briefly.  As with the pressure of preparing the “perfect” meal, we stress with buying the “perfect” gift for our friends and family.  In our minds, we feel we should know the gift receiver so well, that buying the gift should be easy and it will transform their life.  However the reality is that there is no such item.

Giving Experiences

Why do we get so stressed about a material object that most likely will not be remembered several hours after the unwrapping?  I like, and try to follow the advice given by The Minimalists (  They practice the giving of experiences and not material possessions.  How do we give experiences?  That is in the eye of the beholder; however books, concert or movie tickets, a home prepared meal or spending time is suggested by these masterminds of minimalism.

Can you remember what you gave or were given a year ago?  How about two years ago?  A friend boasts about a gift she was given as a child – a movie date with a favorite aunt.  My friend still remembers the film and the experience, but she can’t remember any other gifts from that year.  The experience of sharing time with her favorite relative is what she remembers most.

Questions To Ask Yourself

  • What specific situations increase my stress during the holiday season?
  • What persons are related to my increased stress during the holidays (parent, sibling, employer)?
  • What factors are present during the holidays that may not be present at other times of the year?
  • What coping skills have been useful during the holidays?  What coping skills have not been helpful?
  • List the things about the holidays that have a positive effect on my mood (for example preparing meals, time off from work, social events, traveling).
  • What would I like to remember about this particular event in one year, two years?

Using your answers from these questions, work to create a realistic plan for your upcoming event.  For example, staying with family or friends for an extended period of time?  Perhaps you could plan something to do on your own; perhaps a hike in a nearby park, or a solo shopping trip?  Maybe even an hour at a local coffee shop on your own.

Taking the Pressure Off

Not looking forward to the dreaded after-dinner conversation?  Perhaps a puzzle or a game involving the whole family will take the pressure off difficult relationships.  Be creative with your strategies, and above all, examine the parts of the upcoming holiday that create increased stress in your mind, and make a plan to do something different!