Handling Stress Around the Holidays

Updated on November 7, 2018
VVanNess profile image

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

The holidays are stressful for most people. You have your basic stresses like buying presents for everyone, getting your house clean, decorating, all of the extra holiday activities you may be doing with your friends or children, and most of all, visiting family. The pressure rises for many as there’s an increased pressure to spend money during the holiday season on presents, clothes, food, or even travel, which most of us don’t have an abundance of to start with. Then the hours at work either increase immensely, which means time away from families, or work goes away completely in certain industries, which means money is even tighter and bills are a concern.

However, then you have the big doozies like being alone during the holidays, another year of missed opportunities or failed goals—maybe you long for marriage, a baby, or someone that loves you. If you don’t have a secure home, you may be worrying about things like the cold and food, many women stress about their pregnancies or babies over the holidays, and depression is at its worst around the holidays.

At the time of the year associated with the most happiness, love and joy, many people are stressed, scared, sad, and lonely. I think everyone has been there for at least one holiday in their lives. It seems that the pressure to be happy and be surrounded by family, whether you are alone or overwhelmed, is exactly what causes the problems. Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, for instance, come with a great deal of expectations and it’s hard to live up to them all. So what do you do?

Whether you are simply trying to get the house ready and entertain the kids, or you are worried about money or worse, how do you handle the sheer amount of stress over the holidays? That’s a great question! I hope I address most of your questions below.

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Travel

Nowadays, many families are spread across the country or even across the world. There are typically many expectations that everyone in your family will come together during the holiday season to spend them together. However, how do you decide who is going to do the traveling and what if it is long distance or really expensive?

When we lived in Arizona, our drive to California for Thanksgiving was 6 hours and they provided us with a bed to sleep in. That wasn’t too bad. However, if we tried to make the same trip now, it would be 18 hours on the road, a couple of nights in hotels, and we would have to figure out a new sleeping arrangement. Our burgeoning family would no longer all fit in the small bed they gave us before. On top of that, flying would be over $600 for our family of four and then a rental car and hotel for the week. That just doesn’t work for us anymore, so we had to skip the trip this year.

Everyone traveling for the holidays gets a little harder when kids grow up and have families of their own, especially when you have to consider everyone’s job schedules or careers. That is when compromise is the key. Maybe you can do Thanksgiving but not Christmas or vice versa. One holiday can be spent at home together, or with friends, and the other can be a traveling holiday. Maybe your family can switch around the location for your holiday celebrations so one or more family members are off the hook for traveling each year.

With a family meeting to discuss possible holiday compromises, preferably months before the holiday comes, you could possibly eliminate a great deal of the stress that comes with holiday travel.

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Kids

When kids enter the picture, everything changes. Before my husband and I had children, it was easy enough to pack ourselves in the car at a moment’s notice and head across country to visit others for the holidays. We went to California for a week for Thanksgiving and to Colorado for a week for Christmas. It didn’t matter where we stayed or what was on the schedule, we were up for it.

However, as soon as our first entered the picture, then we had to consider nursing, diapers, toys, nap times, etc. We still traveled for the holidays, but it was a little harder. We couldn’t just stay anywhere because our child had to be considered, and we definitely weren’t down for anything on the schedule anymore. Now that we have two kids, traveling halfway across the country for Thanksgiving is out. And once number three and four come along, things will change again. Most larger families stop leaving the house for the holidays and start inviting family over so no traveling is necessary.

Then, you have to consider all of the other holiday traditions. Do your little ones have special dietary needs? What about decorating the Christmas tree? Caroling? School or church plays? Elf on the Shelf? Santa Clause?

Many parents work hard to make the holidays extra special for their kids. Instead of the holidays revolving around extended family, now you have your own family to care for. For us, considering the needs of our children this time becomes our biggest concern. Everything else seems unimportant when it comes to our kids. At this point in your lives, you have to consider what’s realistic in order to stay sane.

If traveling is too difficult to navigate with your kids, consider throwing the shindig at your house, or even better, just cut the celebration down a bit to what works for your family. Maybe you go for Thanksgiving dinner, but spend the rest of the day at home together. You could even do a video chat with family, or come up with some other tradition that works for you and your kids. The same logic goes for dietary needs. Volunteer to make a few dishes yourself that you feel comfortable serving your children, or make a few requests. You could even have your own Thanksgiving meal at home and then visit family afterward.

The trick to finding balance in all areas of the holidays with kids is being realistic and ditching anything that just pushes too far. Your family will thank you for keeping things reasonable and low key.

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Gifts

I get it, finances are tight for most people. Right now, in most states, it typically takes two full incomes to pay just the basic bills to keep a household running. The pressure to buy presents for everyone in your family can be overwhelming, especially if you have a large family. Do you just buy for kids and forget the adults? Can you just buy for those you are close to? Would the other adults be hurt or offended? This holiday’s decisions could decide your relationship with some of your family for the rest of the year. That’s a lot of pressure.

My husband comes from a family of 13 kids, and has three sets of grandparents. Half of those kids are now married with several kids each. That’s a lot of presents without even considering our own children. This calls for a little creativity. In order to offset the spending, we now do a Secret Santa drawing. Everyone that wants to be included just shoots “Santa” a text message or email. Then our names are drawn and each adult is responsible for one other adult in the family. This ensures that everyone gets something for Christmas, and anyone that would like to buys for the kids. My husband’s parents try to fill in any present gaps so everyone feels loved.

So then there’s still the question of how much to spend on your own kids. Is there a number of presents or an amount of money that’s appropriate? We throw caution to the wind in our home and we don’t buy “presents” for anyone for birthdays and holidays. My husband and I DO something special with each other for our birthdays, and with the kids for all of the special occasions. They are typically covered by all of the grandparents, and doing something together is much more special.

Don’t get me wrong, we buy things for our kids all year long, just not for the “expected” times. For Christmas, I try getting my kids focused on what we can do for other people. Can we give others presents? Visit people in the hospital? Cook meals for others? We’ve even bought groceries for others in the grocery store to spread the holiday cheer, and it becomes a fun game to try and find ways to bless others. I don’t want them growing up thinking that they are owed anything around the holidays besides love and affection.

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Family

This is the biggest stressor reported by everyone around the holidays (and every other time of the year). Why are families so stressful? Aren’t these supposed to be the people that accept you and love you unconditionally? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that there are different lifestyles and opinions, expectations and hurt feelings. This is what makes family around the holidays so hard.

Especially if your parents are divorced, or if you have to balance sharing your children with another person, or both, the holidays can get pretty complicated. Just considering how to fit Thanksgiving and Christmas in with 2, 3 or 4 different families is hard enough. Who gets the big day each month? What kind of drama does this cause the rest of the year on the other side of the family? Effective scheduling is going to be the key here. Maybe you could rotate who got to spend the most coveted times with you and your family each year so that everyone felt like they got to see you and your kids. Maybe you could switch off holidays each year seeing your family for Thanksgiving and the other for Christmas, and then swapping the next year.

I’m pretty sure most families understand the difficulties of having multiple homes to visit each holiday when two people get married, and especially after kids enter the picture. I know we personally schedule an early Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration each year to do the whole shebang with both families. Honestly, this also frees my mom up to do the holidays with her husband’s side of the family as well. It’s not just us that have to split the holidays.

Having to get together on certain days at specific times isn’t really the point of the holidays anyway, is it?

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Cooking

This stressor goes both ways for us. Many people have the responsibility to purchase food and cook for their entire families for the holidays. Especially if you have a big family, and/or you’re also trying to clean and decorate your home to prepare for guests as well, this can get overwhelming, even if you love cooking. But what about those families going to visit another’s home, concerned for food issues.

More and more people are being diagnosed with food allergies every day, and many more are deciding to kick processed foods and refined ingredients for a cleaner eating experience for their families. It may just be that you are on a special diet and you’re trying to avoid certain foods. However you know that the home you are going to is going to be full of the forbidden item, whether it’s sugar, processed foods, or whatever. What do you do? You don’t want to offend anyone or hurt their feelings. You also don’t want to have to fight those food items all week long while you’re visiting.

This particular issue is becoming a bigger issue for families every year. You could bring your own food to eat at meal and snack times. But that gets awkward for everyone, I promise. You could leave the room when those foods are served, or remove your kids at those times. That gets hard too. We’ve been there. Consider teamwork at these tough family times. Maybe everyone could pull together and provide a couple dishes of their own during the holidays. This ensures that everyone has something good to eat that suits their diet, and it takes the burden of cooking everything off of the host.

You could each cook your favorite dishes, or sit down and discuss the menu together in person or through an email. There’s always a way to work together, even in the toughest situations, to lower the stress levels for everyone. And getting all stressors out in the open with your family may just make every holiday from there on after that much easier.

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General Tips for Reducing Holiday Stress

The holidays provide an extraordinary amount of things to stress about each year. But it doesn’t have to be that way. My goal is to provide you tons of ways to reduce this stress and make every holiday from here on out that much easier for you and your family. We have already addressed most of the biggest stressors people face when the holidays come around, but there are a variety of general tips that will cover all others and help to lower the stress on everyone. Let’s look at some of them below.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. Even if it’s just talking to your family about your situation, whether it’s traveling, money, food needs, or even sadness, getting it out in the open will help your family members to understand your decisions a little better and help them to be more supportive. Your life doesn’t have to be perfect, and no one would believe it any way, but if the holidays are overwhelming and depressing, say so. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Talk to your friends about spending the holidays with them. No one should have to spend the holidays alone. Volunteering your time helping others might even be the answer.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays, and your home, don't have to be perfect. As families change and grow, plans often have to change as well. Be open to creating some new traditions, compromising and coming up with new ways to celebrate.
  4. Set aside differences. The holidays are definitely not the time to deal with disagreements or differences with family members. You may choose to make different plans for your family if a problem is that bad, but this isn’t time to drum up family drama.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift or food shopping, decide how much money you wish to spend, then stick to your budget. Take the pressure off of yourself to put yourself in debt impressing anyone. Come up with creative ways to accomplish the same goals without spending money. (i.e. Secret Santa, potluck holiday meals, etc.)
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. If you can create a rotating schedule for visiting your families each year, you won’t feel pressured to spend time with everyone at the same time.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. The holidays are meant to be filled with love and family. Make sure to consider your own family members in your home when making plans. A stressed out family should not be the goal each holiday.
  8. Don't abandon healthy habits. Overindulgence, and letting go of those things that are most important to you, like finances and food choices, only adds to your stress and guilt. It may seem like giving in on a few of your choices will make things easier for everyone, but it won’t. In fact, it will only increase the stress.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. This may be difficult with tons of family around. Maybe you can go take a shower, go for a walk, or put on some headphones for 15 minutes to clear your mind and regroup.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

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You know, life is hard enough on a regular basis. There’s no need to add to it during what should be the best parts of the whole year. Consider some of the situations and suggestions above when the stress starts building for you. With a little compromise, creativity, effective scheduling, teamwork, and considering what’s realistic and best for your family, you should be able to get rid of the majority of your holiday stress this year.

I’m not saying that the holidays won’t have a little stress that naturally comes with them. You probably still have to deal with your Aunt Betty being a little too forward, or that awkward gift Uncle Nestor is going to give you. But, I truly think that starting with honestly discussing your concerns with your family ahead, if possible, is the best place to start. If that doesn’t work, then you have to do what’s best for your family.

Breathe, take some time for yourself, stick to your guns on healthy habits you have for yourself and your family, and consider what’s best for those in your household and you’ll be on your way to a happier holiday season.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Victoria Van Ness

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      • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

        Victoria Van Ness 

        7 days ago from Fountain, CO

        My heart is swelling at the wonderful comments. Thank you so much for your support and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        7 days ago from sunny Florida

        Well said...a helpful set of reminders for us all. I find most stress either at holiday time or any time is self- imposed! I am trying to learn to not let 'stuff' get in the way of enjoying every moment. Thank you for sharing.Angels are on the way today. ps

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        8 days ago from the short journey

        You offer some great ideas to think through ahead of time. Learning to chuckle over our nerdy, quirky, unsophisticated/over-sophisticated, young/old family members is easier when we remember that one day they/we will all just be a memory, and then they will only be that for about 50 years.

        Taking stock by taking advantage of a good read like this one to help us mentally/emotionally plan and prepare, taking care to be watchfully careful for our children and ourselves during gatherings (because, like strangers, family members are not always safe), all so we can take advantage of everything that there is to enjoy is good stuff well worth thinking through.

        What a great thing to take care to place your children's focus on others during the "giving season" amid all of the materialism. That is exactly what the season is about and sharing the focus here is a wonderful thing. It teaches them consideration, the art of listening with ears, mind, and heart, and much more.

        Holiday stress...bah, humbug! Definitely take a breath! Maintain good levels of care for little and big ones in your family! And smile for the joy of the reason for the season we are blessed to share no matter what others say or do! Thanks for a neat read!

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        8 days ago from Sunny Florida

        I think I have personally experienced just about everything you wrote about, but now that we are older it is little bit easier. We are having Thanksgiving for 10 this year, but eveyone brings food. That really helps, and I really love the clean up help as well. There is still planning involved, and I want the house to be clean also.

        I liked your de-stress suggestions, and I think those are important for anyone dealing with holiday stress.

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