It’s the most wonderful time of the year again! The time for family gatherings (but not this year), holiday feasts (maybe), and, according to my TV, buying brand new his-and-hers SUVs (not ever).
I’m not being sarcastic, I do enjoy the holiday season, but there’s no question that it’s stressful. The whirlwind of holiday excitement, decorating the homestead, dredging up the same old family fights, last-minute shopping, and love-hating the winter weather can be a lot, even under the best of circumstances. For all the people who relish this time of year, there are others who dread it.
Some stress is unavoidable, especially if the holidays are difficult due to complicated family situations, past losses, or financial hardships. However, a great deal of holiday stress is self-imposed. As much as you might feel like you have to do certain things to make the holidays magical for everyone, very few are truly non-negotiable. Just because you usually put up elaborate decorations, bake 12 types of cookies, and produce homemade gifts doesn’t mean you’re required to this year. It’s possible—though not always easy—to opt out of the things that cause more stress than pleasure.
By setting some basic ground rules for yourself, you can manage a great deal of holiday stress:
Control the variables you can control.
These are things like:
How much you do or don’t stick to your usual healthy routines.
How much time and energy you devote to decorating and upholding other holiday traditions.
How much money you spend.
Who you do or do not celebrate in person this year.
Try not to lose sleep over the things you can’t control.
Whether or not other people are following the rules.
Other people’s expectations of you.
Whether friends and extended family are accepting of the boundaries you set for your immediate family.
Have reasonable expectations of yourself and others.
I’d argue that unreasonable expectations are at the heart of a lot of holiday stress. There’s only so much time, money, and emotional energy to go around, and we often spread ourselves too thin. This year, stress is higher than ever, nerves are frayed, and we’re probably not at our bests. If ever there was a year to lower your expectations and make do with less, this is it.
Treat yourself and others with kindness and compassion.
My mantra is always prioritize self-care, but this goes beyond that. It means extending yourself and your loved ones extra grace when tasks go undone, tempers occasionally flare, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Basically, be cool to yourself and others.
Ok, I hear you saying, but these are all pretty abstract. What are some concrete ways to avoid, or at least mitigate, holiday stress?
7 Ways to Avoid Holiday Stress
1. Prioritize sleep
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you can do this one thing, a lot of the other things will fall in line. Prioritizing sleep lays the foundation for stress management.
How so? First, sleep deprivation is inherently stressful, physiologically and mentally. It makes you cranky and irritable, so it’s darn near impossible to extend that aforementioned grace to anyone, including yourself. You make poorer decisions and have less willpower to do hard things, like sticking to your diet and setting healthy boundaries. Plus, you’re more likely to end up sick and unable to do even the basics.
On the flip side, when sleep is non-negotiable, it’s easier to say no to things like staying out too late at holiday parties (maybe not this year…) and drinking too much and too often. Your mood and outlook are better, so it’s easier to spread positivity to others.
As in, literally put it in your calendar. Set reminders on your phone. Make sure your family knows what times are off-limits for urgent laundry requests, homework checking, and general griping.
Ideally, you’d set aside a daily block, plus a weekly time that’s devoted to just to you. For example, you might schedule 30 peaceful minutes in the morning before the busyness of the day starts, plus an hour or two one evening that’s your self-care time. Read, journal, meditate, walk, sit quietly with a cup of coffee, watch holiday movies—it doesn’t matter as long as it’s restorative, not draining. Protect this time. Make it sacred.
3. Stick (mostly) to your typical food and movement/exercise
I say mostly because I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to indulge a little on the holidays, but your mileage may vary. In my experience, the holidays are more stressful when you feel pulled in different directions, wanting to enjoy traditional foods or the occasional treat but feeling that you’re not “allowed” because of your diet. “Mostly normal” allows for flexibility.
More generally, it’s ok to relax when we’re dealing with so much else in the world right now. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, it might be good to lower your standards just enough to take some of the pressure off.
That said, don’t let the pendulum swing completely. There’s no good reason to spend the next six weeks making choices that cause you to feel bad physically and mentally. Strive to find the sweet spot where you are enjoying the holidays but not setting yourself up to feel miserable in January. Remember, good nutrition bolsters your body’s natural defenses against stress.
4. Set boundaries ahead of time
Setting boundaries with other people can be uncomfortable, especially if you’re not particularly assertive. Nevertheless, it’s an important adulting skill that can massively protect your own mental health and prevent conflict when done correctly.
If you don’t want to talk about politics, your diet, or anything else at the next family dinner, say so before getting together. Be kind but firm and direct. Explain why you’re making the request and what will happen if your wishes aren’t respected. For example: “It really hurts my feelings when you and Dad make comments about my weight. If I’m going to come over for dinner, I need that topic to be off-limits. If you both can’t agree to that, unfortunately I’m going to have to stay home.”
Boundaries can’t save you from all drama, but they can help you avoid the worst of it, or at least give you an escape route if things go south. They aren’t just for other people, either. You may also need to set firmer boundaries for yourself, deciding ahead of time what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Committing to sleep, me time, and what dietary excursions, if any, you choose to take are all forms of boundary setting. So is making a budget and sticking to it.
5. Only do the things that really matter
Ask yourself: Which of the tasks and traditions that suck up my time every year actually have to get done? Which do I want to do? What would happen if I didn’t do ____ this year? Could we still have a wonderful holiday if we only did ____?”
Perhaps upholding every family tradition truly fills your metaphorical bucket, in which case, go for it. On the other hand, if you just can’t bear the thought of going through all the usual motions, you can and should feel free to Marie Kondo your holidays—keep only the things that bring you joy and scrap the rest. Let each of your family members nominate their top two or three priorities and make those “must dos.” Let everything else be “we’ll sees.” Worst case scenario, if it turns out that you do miss spending hours elaborately wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve, you can do it next year again.
6. Come up with a guilt-free mantra and use it liberally
Guilt is usually the result of the stories we tell ourselves: “The grandparents will be so sad if they don’t get their homemade ornaments this year,” or “Christmas won’t be the same for the kids if we don’t have our cookie decorating party.” They may or may not be true, but in any case, they’re not your problem. It’s not your job to burn yourself out trying to make other people happy.
This is where self-compassion comes in. Instead of playing a loop in your head about how you’re single-handedly ruining everyone’s holiday, try: “This year is hard, and I’m doing the best I can. That’s all anyone can reasonably expect from me, and I’m not going to feel guilty.”
Instead of “I’m not going to feel guilty,” you can sub in:
“It doesn’t help anyone if I sacrifice my mental health trying to make the holiday perfect.”
“My family loves me and understands.”
“I can choose not to be around people, even family, who make me feel bad about it.” (Setting boundaries!)
7. Stave off seasonal depression and anxiety
Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes seasonal affective disorders, but some people are more susceptible than others. Shore up your defenses if you’re someone who typically struggles in the winter months.
Start by eating a nutrient-dense diet. Depression and anxiety symptoms are linked to a host of nutrient deficiencies, including magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc, and folate.12 Supplement if needed with a multivitamin/multimineral.
Seasonal depression also seems to be linked to decreased serotonin activity in the brain, and possibly increased melatonin levels. Both could cause or be the consequence of dysregulated circadian rhythms.3 If you suffer from seasonal depression, it’s doubly important to protect your sleep fiercely. To boost serotonin, eat meat and poultry, which contain tryptophan (a precursor of serotonin), and omega-3-rich fish and eggs. Get plenty of sunshine, or look into light therapy, to increase vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D is important for serotonin production, and individuals with seasonal depression often have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D supplements can help fill the gaps, but sunshine is better. Maybe you can take daily nature walks during your scheduled “me time” and kill two birds with one stone.
Let it Go, Let it Goooo!
I know from experience how easy it is to absorb all the stress and just deal with it rather than taking steps to alleviate it. Your heart is in the right place. You want other people to have a good holiday! You don’t want to let other people down! You want to teach your kids the family traditions! That’s kind and generous, but it easily tips into martyrdom, resentment, and losing your own joy.
Give yourself permission to simplify, change, cancel, and otherwise adapt the holidays as needed. Eliminating the “optional” stress means that you have more mental space to deal with the stressors that you can’t easily eliminate so you can focus on all the things that are truly wonderful about this time of year.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.