A guide to surviving the holiday season: tips for managing sadness and stress when everyone (else) seems happy


For many of us the holidays are far from the cheerful image that some ads paint. You know the one: a family gathered around a new Lexus, and a golden retriever puppy with a red bow around its neck. The reality is that, there is a lot of stress during the holidays. If we are having a difficult time in our life already, the holidays can only exacerbate all the sadness or anxiety we experience throughout the year. They just seem to make the bad worse. Especially in the context of happy cheer, discussions about who is cooking the turkey, and colorful decorations everywhere.

There are many reasons why the holidays can be a particularly stressful time for many of us. (This is by far not an exhaustive list!):

  • Missing loved ones and feeling lonely – The holidays can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and symptoms of depression. This, in turn, can increase our stress. Witnessing others’ happiness and cheerfulness are not necessarily contagious. On the contrary, if you recently lost your spouse or went through a divorce, receiving a dozen cards wishing you a happy holiday season “From our family to yours” can trigger significant distress. If you are coping with the death of a family member or a friend, this may even be the first holiday without them. The change is palpable and painful, even almost physically. Many of us also miss loved ones who live in different countries or states, or are, for example, deployed overseas. Many military spouses, children, and other family members do not get to see their loved service member for multiple holidays. And while the Internet has allowed us many “luxuries,” including Skype, the sadness and loneliness, coupled with worry about our loved one who may be in hostile territory, can be hard to understand to those who are not familiar with military life.
  • Surviving socially – around the holidays the pace of movement and buzzing around seem to pick up. Which can lead to increased stress for all of us. Traffic gets heavier around malls and shopping centers, people seem to be in a frenzy to buy gifts or get places. Office and other holiday parties can pose a significant challenge, especially if you are feeling down or stressed out. While for some they can be an opportunity for socializing, for others they constitute a significant challenge. If you are depressed, or suffer from social anxiety, or are still recovering from the loss of a loved one, small talk can feel unbearable. Even showing up can seem like too much effort and leave you feeling drained and even more depressed.
  • Family expectations – and then, of course, are family expectations. In a world where the majority of us come from families of divorce or live in blended families, the holidays can be a time of increased stress and walking on eggshells. Many expectations are put on us to show up to multiple Thanksgiving dinners or split Christmas day in two. Feelings of responsibility can come in direct opposition with self-care.
  • Finances – the National Retail Federation estimates that the average American spends about $700 on holiday gifts (that is only $100 or so less than the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in, say, Houston TX). It is no wonder, then, that most of us are stressed out about our finances around the holidays. We have to start saving money for the next holiday season as soon as this one is over! If you are feeling overwhelmed just thinking about it, you are not alone. Gift shopping has been named the most stressful thing about the holidays. So much so, that the American Psychological Association (apa.org) has published a guide to Dealing With the Pressure of Gift-Giving (https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/holiday-stress-gift-giving.aspx).
  • A loved ones suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) – when a loved one is struggling with PTS, the levels of stress during the holidays can skyrocket for all involved. Coping with PTS symptoms becomes even more challenging. Being surrounded by larger groups of people than usual (even if they are family) often triggers feeling trapped. Holiday travel can elicit symptoms of panic, anger, road rage, and avoidance. In addition, one of the most prominent symptoms of PTS is social withdrawal. It may be especially difficult for our loved one to engage with family and friends. And, to make matters worse, the holidays can be a direct reminder and actual anniversaries of past trauma. For family members and friends, you may also worry about your loved one’s coping with his or her PTS symptoms, including utilizing more harmful coping skills such as using alcohol/drugs, self-harming, engaging in reckless behaviors. (Please check our Health News section again soon for a more extensive guide on coping when a loved one has PTS.)


Because we all have different families, different triggers and histories, there is no one-size-fits-all guide to surviving stress during the holidays. However, we offer here our list of strategies as a starting off point. Frequently, we may even know that these strategies exist, but feel lost in the grips of emotion and needing to remind ourselves…

With others…

  • Boundaries – boundaries are particularly important during this time of the year. No matter how old we are, we all regress ta little bit in the presence of our parents, older family members, etc. In other words, we may revert to older means of emotional regulation. For instance, you may be happily able to manage anger or anxiety triggers at work, but find yourself feeling not in control of your emotions the moment your father says: “So, you still haven’t been promoted, huh?”
  • Similarly, allow yourself some selective responsiveness. You may not be able to check all the boxes in your list, make all the phone calls you intended to, or go to every family member who invited you. It is ok to give yourself permission to prioritize your mental health. It is also ok to leave a get-together earlier if your anxiety is increasing.

Within yourself…

  • Self-care – to some, this may mean sticking to your routines. For example, if going to the gym is a way of releasing stress, it is worth it to wake up earlier and go. Your afternoon self will thank you when family time becomes stressful. Practice meditation or mindfulness beforehand, not only at the moments when you are already overly stressed. (CLICK HERE for our guide to mindfulness, with audio recordings to help you relax)
  • Limit social media – we cannot take credit for the following quote. And, sadly, we do not remember where it comes, from but it is worth sharing: Do not compare your difficult moments to everyone else’s highlight reel! If you find yourself frustrated, sad, tearful, or anxious when scrolling through facebook, Instagram, twitter, etc., remember that what you see on your screen is only what others have chosen to share with the world. Better yet, stay away from social media and connect to people you care about in a more personal way, i.e. via text or phone call.
  • Focus on the things you can control – for instance, you may be worried about how family members will interacting with each other. You do not know whether there will be conflict or uncomfortable situations, if someone may cope with their anxiety through drinking too much, isolating too much, etc. However, these may not be within the scope of what you can control. Try to focus on how you will manage your own emotions, rather than worry about others. Similarly, you are in charge of your own routines, nutrition, responses to emotionally charged situations, how you drive or what places you stay away from. You are not in control of the weather, traffic, past occurrences or unforeseen events.

  • Plan around rush hour and crowds – in clinical psychology, we try to help people push through their avoidance. The more you avoid the things that make you anxious, the more difficult it becomes to manage your anxiety in the long run. However, the holiday season, with its traffic and crowds, is a different story. Stress during the holidays is high, higher than usual. If you are already feeling on edge, try to notice your internal state, do not push yourself to expose yourself to situations which would cause you to become even more panicky or irritable. The holiday season is a marathon, not a sprint, and you will require some mental stamina and patience to get through it. No need to flood yourself with overstimulation.

Last but not least…

  • Stop trying to have THE PERFECT THANKSGIVING/CHRISTMAS/NEW YEAR’S/HANUKKAH. During the holidays, especially if we have been experiencing difficult times, we tend to focus on what we do not have. Try to refocus your attention on what you DO have. For example, if your family is far away, and you are spending a holiday with your friends, it is tempting to focus your attention on those far away. Perhaps even feel lonely, abandoned, or forgotten. Yet, there is this whole welcoming friend circle, who are excited that you, yes YOU, will be with them. They value and care about you. This is not trivial or unimportant, make sure you give it the importance it deserves. We are not saying here that you can just eliminate sadness. But perhaps try to allow for some of the happiness and appreciation of what you do have enter your mind and heart too.


Sometimes, even if we are doing our very best, emotions take over at unexpected times. Or we cannot quite manage the anxiety, feeling on edge, or the stress in our relationships. You should consider talking to a counselor if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Persistent sadness or tearfulness
  • Feeling overwhelmed seemingly out of nowhere (e.g. at the store, in traffic, while home alone)
  • Constant irritability
  • Trouble concentrating at work
  • Feeling on edge/trapped/overly vigilant
  • Feeling distress in relationships, increased conflict with your loved ones, or just unable to express yourself
  • Experiencing panic attacks
  • Feeling unable to feel any positive emotions, feeling numb or disconnected from everyone
  • Experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or someone else
  • Feeling like bad things are happening to you because you deserve them, as if you are being punished
  • Having intrusive memories of negative past events and feeling unable to stop them from coming
  • Difficulties sleeping, either falling or staying asleep, or having nightmares
  • To learn more about the signs and symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress, CLICK HERE

This is not an exhaustive list. If you are wondering if talking to someone may help with whatever difficulty you are experiencing call us at 631-683-8499 and we will be happy to advise. Remember, this is not about whether or not you can manage what is going on by yourself. If is that when things are hard, you should not have to manage by yourself. Help is available. Contact us HERE.

Author: Dr. Valentina Stoycheva

Dr. Stoycheva is the Co-Founder and Director of STEPS: Stress & Trauma Evaluation and Psychological Services, Long Island, NY (www.traumaprofessionals.com). STEPS is a group practice staffed with expert and dedicated clinicians, who strive to provide the highest quality trauma-informed and evidence-based treatment for all affected by stressful events and traumatic experiences. STEPS offers individual, as well as group and family therapy for adults and children of all ages who have been exposed to traumatic events, or love someone who is struggling to recover from a traumatic event.

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