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4 tips for managing holiday stress

It’s that time of the year to experience joy, wonder, gratitude, togetherness and — for many people — tremendous amounts of holiday stress. Whether it’s feeling pressure to pull off a picture-perfect dinner, being overwhelmed by the constant whirlwind of social commitments and to-dos, or feeling anxious about certain family dynamics, holiday stress can often get in the way of what’s supposed to be the “happiest season of all.”

For those of us who sometimes find ourselves feeling less than merry during the holidays, we’re not alone. One 2006 survey found that 61% of respondents felt stressed sometimes or often during the holidays. If we’re hoping this season can be different, we can consult the American Psychological Association’s holiday stress resource kit. We might also turn to mindfulness for help. With practice, it’s possible to learn better ways for managing holiday stress, as well as any negative emotions that arise during this time, and even allow ourselves to make room for the parts of the holidays that bring us joy.

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Key takeaways:

  • Holiday stress, whether anticipated or unplanned, can be mindfully managed

  • Learning 4 holiday stress tips can help us relate differently to seasonal stressors — and ultimately stress less

  • Try 10 meditations for holiday stress


What causes stress during the holidays?

The things that trigger holiday anxiety and stress can vary widely from person to person. That being said, there tends to be a few common factors that bring about these emotions.

Among those who report feeling holiday stress, the financial strain of the season is one of the most common triggers. Many people also feel overwhelmed by the pressure to get everything done with shopping, cooking, and party planning added to an already long to-do list. The uptick in party invites, crowds at stores, and travel plans can be especially stressful for those who experience social anxiety or have to deal with a difficult family dynamic. Alternatively, the absence of family or a lack of social connections can cause stress and contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Now, these sources of holiday stress are somewhat predictable — we know that they tend to show up the same time, year after year. That may be why the countdown to the holidays and all its festive events can lead to some of us feeling a heightened sense of holiday anxiety and dread. We might think we’re helping ourselves by identifying these triggers ahead of time — and it might well be if our intention is to learn acceptance, increase resilience, or practice forgiveness (rather than try to take control).

But there are so many things about the holidays that are, quite honestly, out of our hands. That’s why the usual tips for coping with holiday stress — for example, “Start planning sooner” or “Shop online to avoid the crowds” — aren’t always helpful, because life is unpredictable. Even if we successfully plan ahead and shop online hassle-free, there may be other situations that arise that will throw us for a loop.

Regardless of the source — and whether it was anticipated or not — holiday stress, like any other source of stress, can take a toll on our overall well-being. When we’re stressed, we may feel anxious, afraid, angry, sad, irritable, frustrated, or depressed. It can also trigger physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, stomach troubles, sweating, heart palpitations, aches, and pains. Chronic stress is also associated with high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as a weakened immune system, increasing our susceptibility to colds and other common infections.

So, how might we keep the hustle and bustle of the holiday season from making even the most laid-back among us feel run down and stressed out? Mindfulness — the quality of being present, aware, and fully engaged with whatever we are doing at the moment — can be particularly helpful in reducing stress and the power it has over us. That’s because when we’re being mindful, we free ourselves from distractions, judgment, and the inner-commentary fueled by the stories in our head; instead, we are aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. Simply put, even if we’re experiencing a stressful situation — during the holidays or otherwise — we’re less affected by it.


4 holiday stress tips

As the holidays begin to approach, we might try one or all of these holiday stress tips to navigate the season with a little more peace of mind:

  1. Reframe our approach to stressful situations.

Many people understandably view the entire holiday season as an obligation or chore because it’s filled with stressors at every turn. But stress doesn’t have to always be interpreted as something negative. There are plenty of circumstances in which stress can be energizing, helping us to prepare and rise up to meet life’s challenges — take the adrenaline rush you experience when you’re trying to meet a deadline, or the excitement you feel when you’re about to go on a first date.

This season, when approaching a potentially stressful situation, zoom out and think about it from another angle. For instance, let’s say we’re stressing out about the gifts we have to buy: one way to reframe this situation is to take a moment to think about each person on the gift list and how grateful we are to have them in our life. Focusing on the feelings of love, warmth, and gratitude can help to soften the mind and reduce the intensity of stress, making room to choose a thoughtful present.

Or, as another example, if we’re feeling stressed because a flight got delayed, we have two choices in that moment — we can get all wound up over something we cannot change, or we can accept that there is a delay beyond our control, and instead use it as an opportunity to read a book, play a game with the kids, or listen to a podcast before all the festivities start. View the extra time as a valuable gift.

Acceptance and gratitude can very quickly take the stress out of situations. We might consider making a gratitude practice part of our daily routine throughout the holidays — and perhaps even long after the new year begins. Whether we count our blessings during a gratitude meditation or by keeping a gratitude journal, research shows that actively practicing gratitude tends to make people feel happier and less stressed.

  1. Turn holiday traditions into mindful moments.

Between Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s, the season is packed with sensory-rich traditions. Cooking big meals, baking festive treats, going shopping for decorations, and taking walks through neighborhoods adorned in lights are all moments that we can experience more mindfully through our 5 senses.

For example, during an outing to a Christmas tree lot, we might take a big inhale through the nose. Does it smell of fresh pine? Is there music playing in the background? Take a moment to listen. What does the scene look like? Are there lights strung up? Are any of the trees decorated? How does the crisp air feel on the face? Is each breath visible?

That simple exercise can help us tune in to the body, ground ourselves in the present, and cultivate a sense of calm amidst the chaos. If we practice being mindful during festive moments like that, we can ultimately learn to weave this practice into our daily lives.

  1. Take care of yourself.

The holiday season is all about giving — and that includes giving ourselves whatever we need to reduce stress so we can fully appreciate and find meaning during this time. Because stress affects people in different ways, this can look different for everyone. Perhaps we set aside 10 minutes a day for guided meditation, a practice that’s been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. For others, it means getting plenty of sleep or exercise — or both. Or maybe we make a point to take a mindful walk each morning, another daily ritual that can reduce stress.

If we’re not sure what works best for us, consider making time to do one thing each day that makes us happy. Incorporating joy into our lives and reconnecting with the things that mean the most to us is, after all, what the holidays are all about.

On the other hand, if not doing something is what will make us happy, then we deserve to honor that, too. We might work on setting boundaries for the season. For example, we might politely decline to participate in a Secret Santa exchange if the budget is tight. Or we might simply require some space and alone time to reset and recharge (and maybe meditate!) so that we can be at our best for others. Making time for ourselves to do nothing or to connect with the things that bring us peace and joy may ultimately help to make this season feel more celebratory and less like an obligation to everyone else.

  1. Reframe loneliness.

For many of us, the holiday season can feel stressful because it brings about feelings of loneliness. Maybe it’s because we’ve recently lost a loved one, or we live far away from the people we’d like to celebrate with, or maybe we have a difficult or no relationship with our family.

When loneliness begins to creep up, many of us default to resisting it and looking for distraction. After all, loneliness can be difficult to sit with, so it is understandable why we would want to escape challenging emotions. That said, the solution might be in facing those emotions rather than running away from them. As counterintuitive as that may sound, there is some benefit to be found in this different approach. As Andy Puddicombe says: “From a meditation point of view, and if we can, try not to reach out for that distraction. The more we can actually allow the mind to be present with that feeling, the more familiar it will become.”

“Every time we step back from our thinking [via meditation], we’re ultimately free from the storyline we’ve built around loneliness,” he says. “It doesn’t negate the circumstance of our situation, but it allows us to feel more at ease in our body and mind. If anything, when we meditate, we realize that it’s our reaction to loneliness that is more relevant than the feeling of loneliness.”

The more we are able to sit with loneliness in this way, the less we identify with the associated thoughts and emotions, and the less painful it becomes. When we take time to investigate it, examine it, and understand how it begins, the resulting awareness can help us find a greater sense of ease with the emotion itself.


Try 10 meditations for holiday stress

Looking for more meditations for managing holiday stress? The Headspace app offers members several courses and single meditations on how to handle holiday stress, including:

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Enjoy a healthier mind by developing your awareness of stress and learning how to reframe negative emotions.

  • Managing Anxiety course. Cultivate a new perspective on fear and anxiety.

  • Managing Financial Stress course. Explore ways to see finances with compassion and learn helpful tips from a financial wellness expert.

  • Mindful Cooking activity. Step away from the thinking mind and be fully present with the act of cooking itself, with all of its sights, sounds, flavors, and aromas.

  • Showing Gratitude meditation. Find a greater sense of gratitude for yourself, your health, and the people in your life.

  • Patience course. Learn to recognize impatience, process it, and let it go.

  • Feeling Overwhelmed meditation. Give yourself a little space when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  • Reset meditation. Practice letting go by resting the body and resetting the mind, helping you feel more present, and better able to enjoy whatever comes next.

  • Refresh meditation. Wash away any tension in the body.

  • Body Scan meditation. Bring the mind and body together with this classic meditation technique.

  • Reframing Loneliness course. Learn to understand what it means to be lonely, the origins of this emotion, and how you can feel more connected to the world around you.

Despite how it’s often marketed to us, the holiday season isn’t always a month and a half of straight bliss. Being human means that we might not always feel our best, and that plans might not always go as expected. Allowing room for travel delays, slip-ups, or plans going awry will help ease any tension we may have going into the holidays.

But with the right mindfulness tools in place, we can learn how to better manage the stress, anxiety, or even loneliness that may be heightened over the holidays. And in doing so, we may also discover what parts of this time do bring us joy, allowing us to shine a little more light on those festive moments.

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