It’s no secret that the holidays are stressful. Last year, the American Psychiatric Association polled over 2,000 adults: 41 percent reported an increase in worrying during the season. This year, 31 percent said they expected to feel even more stressed than they did in 2021. The reasons are plentiful: social obligations, gift-giving woes, family tensions, travel challenges, financial concerns and the list goes on.
So we asked experts to provide a few solutions to our holiday stressors. Consider their answers our gift to you.
Schedules are overwhelming.
This time of year can be so busy that being overbooked seems inevitable. But if adding another obligation to your plate makes you want to scream, setting boundaries might be in order, according to Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed therapist and author of “Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships.”
First, determine what’s important: Look at the commitments on your calendar, and decide how much time and energy you are willing to devote to each, said Afton Kapuscinski, a clinical psychologist and associate teaching professor of psychology at Syracuse University. Think about previous years’ patterns to help you decide what feels right. If that’s difficult, ask a loved one whether your schedule looks manageable. An outside perspective from someone who cares about your best interest can be valuable, she said.
Once your priorities are sorted, you’ll need to get comfortable saying no. Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, recommended three different ways of declining. You can simply say “No,” because “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” she explained. You can say, “No, not right now,” and suggest a different timeline, or you can say, “I can’t do this, but I can do that.”
Still, there are times when we can’t prioritize our comfort: “Sometimes we just have to show up,” Ms. Glover Tawwab said. Remembering why these obligations are important can help give you a little motivation.
— Hannah Seo
Family feuds seem unavoidable.
For some of us, family tension is its own kind of holiday tradition. Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University and the author of “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” suggested a few rules of engagement.
Remind yourself that family gatherings are not the time to “fix” anyone, Dr. Pillemer said. It’s tempting to wade into heavy or personal topics, but avoid using a holiday meal to convince your parents to take better care of their health.
As for tense political discussions, ask yourself: Is there any chance of changing hearts and minds? If the answer is no, do not engage, Dr. Pillemer said.
If you are lured into a heated debate or stressful family situation, try to “embrace the strategy of underreactivity,” he said. Instead of responding immediately, observe what your loved ones are doing and how you are feeling. You might imagine that you are a researcher watching your family’s interactions unfold, rather than someone enmeshed in the drama.
Giving yourself physical distance is also important, Dr. Pillemer said. Book a hotel room, stay with a neutral friend or keep your holiday visit short. And, most importantly, take some space when you feel tension building.
“The goal,” Dr. Pillemer said, “is to focus on underreacting — and stepping away when you need a break.”
— Catherine Pearson
Money is tight.
Economic worries have made this holiday season particularly stressful for some. Still, a meaningful, memorable December is possible.
Rick Kahler, a financial therapist and planner based in Rapid City, S.D., suggested taking time to think about what you can realistically afford.
Once you have a budget, discuss what you cherish most about the season with your loved ones and prioritize spending on those things, said Judith Gruber, a social worker and financial therapist based in East Lyme, Conn.
Here are a few tweaks you can make to celebrate the season a little more frugally:
Gift exchanges, like white elephant and secret Santa, are a tried-and-true way to cut gifting costs — but giving people experiences instead of objects is also an option.
“Experiences tend to be more emotionally evocative,” and strong feelings bolster relationships, said Cindy Chan, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
Low-cost ideas include organizing a winter hike, scheduling a museum trip on a local free day, going for hot chocolate and ice skating, or hosting a cookie-baking party or game night.
The lavish holiday meal can be a particular financial burden for the host, said Mr. Kahler, because there’s often so much tradition wrapped up in it. Hosts may think, “We’ve got to have a big meal. We’ve got to have the whole family there. The meal’s got to look like this or consist of this,” he said.
To curb costs without canceling, he suggested switching to a potluck. Or, if you live close to the other guests, you can throw a progressive dinner party, in which attendees travel to a different person’s home for each course.
Travel costs can make in-person celebrations unrealistic. And even though you might be sick of virtual parties, dusting off your ring light and hosting an event over video can help you stay connected. To keep it interesting, send everyone the same recipe ahead of time and cook and eat the meal together (or make cocktails, for a less labor-intensive activity).
You can also book a January or February “holiday” trip, taking advantage of off-peak airfare. Looking forward to a vacation during the depths of winter can make quieter holidays a little easier.
— Dana G. Smith
Vacation arrives, but relaxation doesn’t.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to have time off, your mind may still churn with work deadlines, financial woes and an expanding to-do list. If you find yourself unable to relax even after your out-of-office reply is set and your schedule is clear, “you need to give yourself grace,” said Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University. It can be challenging to detach just because you’re out of the office, but these four tips can help:
Vacation is likely to be the one chunk of time you can devote to being present, Dr. Neal-Barnett said. Focusing on the task in front of you (watching a holiday movie or wrapping presents) instead of simultaneously catching up on emails can help soothe stress. When we’re distracted, our minds ping from one thought to another, making us feel overwhelmed. It’s important to remember that, when we take time off, we’ve been granted a period to do nothing, she added.
Dr. Neal-Barnett recommended a quick exercise to help ease anxiety when stress hits: Tense your muscles for 30 seconds, then exhale and release the tension. Start with one muscle group, like your thighs or your arms, moving around your body, until your breathing slows and you feel calmer.
If a concern pops up, set aside time to think about it when vacation is over. Put a note on your phone or send yourself an email, signaling to your brain that you’ll address it later, said Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health. “Ask yourself: Am I really going to do anything about this right now?” she said. If not, “it’s just thought garbage.”
When you find yourself drifting into anxiousness, use the emotion as a sign to connect with the people around you, Dr. Gallagher said. Try to use work-related thoughts to remind yourself that you’re off the clock. Instead of indulging the worry, turn to your sister, for example, and ask about her dog, or invite your niece to play. “Being present is a practice,” Dr. Gallagher said.
— Dani Blum
Office parties are awkward.
There’s a scene in the popular Apple TV+ series “Severance” in which the awkwardness of an office party is palpable. To celebrate the recent success of Helly, an employee at the mysterious company Lumon, her manager rolls a record player into the team’s drab work space, turns on some music and switches the lighting from fluorescent white to pulsating colors. Then he starts shimmying around each of the four team members, nudging them all into an embarrassing bop.
“There’s almost nothing more potentially awkward than trying to look like you’re having fun for the sake of your boss who’s standing right there,” said Dan Erickson, the creator of the show, who endured many office holiday parties in his past life as a corporate employee at a door factory.
The last two years have lowered many people’s social stamina, making these gatherings particularly uncomfortable for some of them, said Liz Fosslien, author of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work” and “Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay.”
But, if done right, parties where hierarchies are flattened and co-workers mingle can be good for team morale, said Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.”
Successful office holiday parties have dedicated people, like office veterans and extroverts, who connect with guests, Ms. Parker said. There should also be “moments of focus” — short toasts or a shared activity — that mark the moment and give “people something to talk about that’s not high-stakes,” she said.
If you’re nervous, try bringing small-talk questions that steer clear of work, enabling co-workers to open up about other parts of their lives, Ms. Fosslien said. She suggested “What food do you think is underrated?” or “If you could win a lifetime supply of something, what would it be?”
And consider arriving early. “It’s counterintuitive — we think we should go late,” Ms. Parker explained, but going early is a good way to really connect with others “because there will be fewer people, and you can have more focused conversations.”
Having an exit plan can also ease some social anxiety. “I’m an introvert, so I’ll tell myself, ‘I’m going to go for an hour and then I’m going to re-evaluate,’” Ms. Fosslien said. Make sure it is logistically easy for you to leave, she added. Avoid parties on boats, for example, or if the party is far, try not to car pool. You might discover “that you actually enter more relaxed and then you have a good time and end up staying longer than you thought you would.”
— Alisha Haridasani Gupta
Children transform into monsters.
The holiday season can bring out the absolute worst in some kids. But it’s really not their fault, said Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker, author of “You are Not a Sh*tty Parent: How to Practice Self-Compassion and Give Yourself a Break” and a mother of two herself. Children often go to bed late, eat different foods and indulge in more screen time. “Their schedules and routines fall apart,” she said.
Some parents welcome that break from structure, and that’s OK. “Parents get to decide what works and what doesn’t work with their family,” Dr. Naumburg said. “If you don’t want to set limits around the holidays, you don’t have to!”
But if your child becomes feral and that stresses you, set boundaries. Maybe your kids need to stick to an early bedtime — even at grandma’s house. Perhaps they need to go outside and run off some energy every day, no matter what the rest of the family has planned.
Dr. Naumburg recommended making a schedule for children, even if some days are reserved for hanging out. You can write it down, draw pictures for younger kids or just talk it through each morning.
“It can be very anxiety-provoking to not know what’s coming next,” she said, particularly for kids who exert very little control over the rhythms of their lives.
Even if you keep some structure and boundaries, your child still may act up, so before you head into any holiday functions, make a plan for handling mishaps and meltdowns, Dr. Naumburg said. Is there an ally you can commiserate with? Can you take your child out of the room to work through the moment together, without any onlookers?
“We all want to be seen as our best selves by our families, and we all feel that judgment,” Dr. Naumburg said, “even kids.”
Traveling is a nightmare.
Wrangling yourself, loved ones and your belongings into a plane, train or automobile can cause chaos. So it’s best to do what you can to prepare in advance, said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA.
If you’re flying, book assigned seats early, especially if you’re with children, to ensure that everyone can sit together. If you’re concerned about delays, aim for the earliest departure, which is the most likely to depart on time, Ms. Twidale said.
Scheduling a transport service from the airport to where you’re staying, or booking a space at a parking garage, can reduce delays outside of the airport. And if you can avoid checking a bag, you should, Ms. Twidale said.
Drivers should pack their cars like they’re going camping: Bring water, snacks and a blanket, in case roadside issues crop up, Ms. Twidale said. And check the car battery, engine and tire pressure beforehand to avoid any malfunctions on the road.
Of course, no matter how much you prepare, travel comes with some uncertainty. But accepting the stress that arises may actually help you manage it, said Michael Ziffra, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Medicine.
Try writing down your top five worries ahead of time, a technique often used in cognitive behavioral therapy, he said. Beside each worry, explore how likely it is that your concern will happen and how bad it would be if it did. This practice can help replace worst-case scenarios in your mind with situations that are more realistic, Dr. Ziffra said.
If anxiety hits during travel, placing your hand on your stomach to feel your breath rise and fall can encourage relaxation and distraction, he said. Mindfulness can help in moments of stress, Dr. Ziffra said, but it is most effective when practiced regularly. So here’s another thing to do in advance: breathe.
— Nicole Stock
Everyone is on a phone.
Many of us are eager to limit screen time, hoping to relish quality moments instead. Still, we may find ourselves scrolling in the interval between dinner and dessert, or tunneling into social media during family game night. For those looking to cut down, “the single biggest thing you can do” is to put physical distance between yourself and your device, said Adam Alter, a marketing professor at N.Y.U. Stern School of Business and the author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”
For anyone unwilling to leave the phones in another room, these tips can help:
If you want to keep your phone nearby for emergencies or use it for photos, pause notifications that aren’t essential, said Larry Rosen, a psychologist and author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.” You can also move your most used apps into a separate folder on your phone, far away from your main screen, or try putting your phone on airplane mode, which temporarily suspends Wi-Fi and cellular service, Mr. Alter said.
If forgoing your phone is too intense, or infeasible, start with a timed break, Dr. Rosen said. Put your phone aside and set a timer for 15 minutes, so that you can check your notifications and respond to anything urgent when your break is over.
During a family gathering, give everyone a chance to check phones beforehand, then set them all to the side for 15 minutes, or take scheduled breaks from devices while spending time together.
Parents may be particularly eager to tug their children away from their devices. If you’re looking to wrench holiday guests of any age off their phones, offer an alternative, Mr. Alter said — an activity that can take the place of mindlessly looking at a screen. Maybe that’s a card game or a conversation topic everyone can chime in on, like a shared TV show or family tradition. “You can’t just say, ‘Don’t use your phone,’’ he said. “You need to fill the vacuum.”
Other people are having way more holiday fun.
There’s a lot of pressure to be social during the holidays. Those expectations can make you feel pretty low, particularly if your social feeds are full of parties you weren’t invited to or people who seem to have harnessed the holiday spirit in a way you just can’t.
Limiting social media use is one obvious fix, but gratitude can also be a potent antidote to holiday FOMO, the fear of missing out, said Jaime Kurtz, a professor of psychology at James Madison University who has done extensive research on “savoring,” the ability to notice positive experiences deliberately.
“FOMO is really all about scarcity, all the things you don’t have,” she said. “Gratitude and savoring are the opposite.”
Dr. Kurtz recommended starting a simple gratitude practice early in the holiday season. Spend some time considering the things you’re anticipating. Ask yourself: What am I excited about? What traditions do I look forward to? Research shows that positive anticipation can help boost your mood and alleviate stress.
It’s useful to jot your thoughts down, Dr. Kurtz said, because it can help you stay focused, and research has shown that keeping a gratitude journal can contribute to increased feelings of happiness and life satisfaction. But you can also chat with someone about what you’re looking forward to if that feels more natural.
As the holidays unfold, make an effort to savor the season, Dr. Kurtz said. Take slow, intentional bites of your favorite foods to notice the taste and texture. Pause and appreciate the coziness of your home. You can take just five seconds and quietly acknowledge the experience, Dr. Kurtz said. Those moments, strung together, can help you focus on what you have rather than someone else’s holiday fun.