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Expert Q&A: 5 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress 

Discover five expert tips on how to manage holiday stress and avoid the winter blues.

Holiday messaging often emphasizes good cheer with family and friends. But even advertising at this time of year has begun to acknowledge common sentiments of grief, loneliness, and financial stress. If you are feeling holiday stress, you are not alone:  

  •  9 out 10 U.S. adults say they experience concerns over the holidays 
  •  41% of U.S. adults say their stress levels increase around this time of year 
  •  64% of individuals living with mental illness report worsening mental health conditions  

Family interactions or financial pressure can trigger holiday blues. Controversial topics at dinner can create tension, stress, and anxiety. It can be hard to set boundaries, especially if you already have anxiety disorders or other existing mental health concerns.  

Nostalgia and grief can also feed into intense emotions. "Many people grieve what the holidays used to be like, leading to feelings of sadness, stress, or loneliness from social isolation," said MK Sullivan, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with Array. "The holidays can stir up reminders of loved ones who have passed away, or children being grown and out of the house. For some, the holidays aren't filled with the same energy and community as before."  

People may choose to manage expectations or remind themselves that the season will pass. Sullivan shared more coping strategies for when you’re feeling like the merry making isn’t so plum. Frankly, who needs all that holiday music on repeat 

Pause the "Jingle Bell Rock" and follow along with these expert mental health tips. 

1. Feel the feels

"As far as grief goes, let yourself feel it," said Sullivan. "Practice acknowledging what you're feeling without judgment and not shying away from it. Remind yourself it's okay to not be okay. There are ways to deal: moving your body, getting outside, connecting with people (or disconnecting if you feel you need to), or tapping into spirituality if that’s part of your life.” 

Once you have given yourself time to nurture and experience your emotions, there are further steps you can take to handle them. We’ll dive into those next. 

2. Set boundaries

Self-care is a buzzword with many meanings. But it can be as simple as being true to yourself and letting go of unrealistic expectations. “Self-care can look like setting boundaries, prioritizing yourself, and acknowledging your truth,” said Sullivan. “Focus on what you need and what is important to you.” 

One approach is to set time limits on activities that have both positive and negative impacts on your state of mind. For example, being mindful of time spent on social media, watching TV, or listening to the news.  

On an interpersonal level, you can set boundaries within your social circle. "That could be anything from asking for help with preparing meals for your family, so you aren’t feeling overwhelmed,” said Sullivan. “Or it could be telling your family that you are not open to chatting about how you are raising your children or political issues. Setting these expectations in advance can alleviate stress and pressure going into certain situations." 

3. Have healthy habits

Sullivan emphasizes that we should not overlook the mind-body connection. Focusing on your physical health over the holiday has mental benefits. Getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and eating well might be considered the trifecta of wellness habits. “Certain foods can really boost us like fruits and veggies, berries, leafy greens,” she added.  

So, does that mean more fruitcake? “It’s all about balance and intuitive eating,” said Sullivan. Tuning into what brings satisfaction and joy can help. Which leads to tip #4 here below.

4. Check in on your feelings

Feeling emotions is important. It's also helpful to check your body for sensations or feedback. According to Sullivan, your body gives you valuable information when you are with specific people or doing certain activities. “It can help decide around whether it’s something you want to pull back from or lean into more,” she said. 

Consider skipping an end of year activity or social obligation if it is not bringing you joy.

5. Maintain your therapy routine or reach out for help if needed

If you are already in therapy, try to maintain appointments even with your busy schedule. Just a quick check-in can be beneficial. With a telehealth service like Array, increased flexibility allows for making appointments even if you aren’t home (as long as you are still within your home state).  

"Telehealth has completely changed therapy because it’s so accessible. When you're wrapped up in the chaos of the holidays, pausing to talk with your therapist can make a big difference," said Sullivan. 

If you haven't seen a therapist yet, don't be afraid to begin during the holidays. Therapy at end of year can start you on a positive path for the next one – providing opportunities to set goals.  

Sullivan typically sees an uptick in patient demand around November and December. “It can be life changing to have that support when you are navigating tough times and heavy feelings,” said Sullivan.  

Headshot of expert clinician featured in blog.

About our expert

MK Sullivan is a licensed clinical social worker offering behavioral health services to adults. She treats a full list of issues with specializations in grief, trauma, LGBTQIA+, and relationships. MK received her Master of Social Work from Tulane University and a certificate in Disaster, Mental Health, and Trauma Studies.

MK's primary goal is to make sure the people that she is working with feel fully seen and understood. She meets people where they are, and simultaneously challenges them to identify and address barriers that prohibit growth. She works together with her clients to understand the mind-body connection in order to facilitate change and healing within.

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If you are in crisis, call 988 to talk with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, text HOME to 741741 to connect to a free crisis counselor, or go to your nearest emergency room.