- Neurodivergent people frequently find the holidays stressful because of the intense social pressures.
- The pressure to mask around the holidays heightens because of the pressure to be happy and visit large groups.
- Setting boundaries is hard, but it can lighten the strain of the holidays if you are neurodivergent.
The winter holidays have always been hard for me.
When I was a child, I was autistic but not yet diagnosed, and I would cry every Christmas.
My parents were flabbergasted and sometimes impatient because they didn’t understand why I was melting down at a time when everyone was supposed to be happy.
Now, as an adult, I finally have a diagnosis of autism, which gives me some wisdom about what happens to me as the year comes to a close. When late November rolls around, I grow irritable and exhausted and have trouble concentrating and sleeping.
When I notice the calendar, I can make the connection between my struggles and the time of year. The nights are long, and the pressure of the holiday season has begun to build. So, I set to work relieving this pressure so that I can find joy with my family instead of anxiety, depression, and burnout.
If you are neurodivergent, you might also find the winter holidays a paradoxical time—you’re supposed to be happy, but instead you’re suffering. Here are some ideas for how you, too, can make the holidays more bearable, and even joyful.
Why are the holidays so stressful?
Ellison’s words shine a light on why neurodivergent people like herself struggle at the holidays: “Winter is a time of slowing down, shutting off, and turning in,” Ellison says. “Our biology changes along with the seasons: darker days and colder weather increase our melatonin levels; our circulation slows; our cardiovascular systems experience more stress.”
Ellison notes, “These changes can increase not just our desire, but also our need for rest and introspection.”
All people, neurotypical and neurodivergent alike, need rest. However, this need for rest conflicts with the social pressures of the holidays.
As Ellison points out: “Many of us fight against this natural urge to rest by working hard to meet commercial holiday expectations or racing toward end-of-the-year goals, which put us out of sync with what we’re meant to do.”
Trauma survivors, like other neurodivergent people, are more sensitive to holiday stressors.
(Not everyone takes such a broad approach to neurodiversity, but I do. Trauma affects neurological function—in both positive and negative ways.)
“While everyone needs rest,” Ellison told me, “trauma survivors’ nervous systems are programmed for intensity and hypervigilance. Couple this with challenging family dynamics and struggles with perfectionism and you have a recipe for holiday disasters.”
Neurodivergent people must mask during the holidays
I define neurodiversity as normal variations in human neurological function, emphasis on normal.
I break neurodiversity into three categories: developmental disorders like ADHD and autism; psychiatric disabilities (i.e., mental illnesses) like bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders; and acquired mental disabilities like PTSD and post-concussion syndrome.
But because these categories are based on medical diagnoses, there is significant overlap between them in people's lived experiences.
Neurodivergent people are more sensitive to holiday stressors such as exhaustion, forced proximity to large groups of people, forced touching, strained familial relationships that we can’t escape, and the pressure of social expectations.
One way that neurodivergent people cope with these neurotypical social expectations is by masking (also called “social camouflaging”). Masking protects us from stigma and makes neurotypical people more comfortable.
But research shows that masking is exhausting and can cause anxiety, depression, and death by suicide.
Around the holidays, social pressures are especially intense. Everyone is supposed to be happy. Joyous. Smiling. Intense pressures require intense masking.
These pressures frequently make neurodivergent people feel worried, anxious, and overwhelmed, so we must mask extra hard at a time when we should be relaxing. This masking, in turn, makes us feel even worse.
Ironically, most people in the U.S., neurotypical and neurodivergent alike, don’t actually feel that happy around the holidays, but feel pressure to act like they are.
To summarize what Ellison told me, we’re all doing it wrong.
What can you do? Set boundaries at the holidays
I define boundaries as the limits that a person sets, by word or action, on the behavior that they will accept from other people.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown draws the connection between setting boundaries and lowering anxiety.
She found that people who lived satisfied lives were able to reduce anxiety by “paying attention to how much they could do and how much was too much.”
Why don’t we set good boundaries, then? Research shows that we must believe in our own self-worth in order to do so. Setting boundaries is about tending to our own needs. Belief in our own worthiness is required to put our needs first.
Setting boundaries can be extra hard if you are neurodivergent. Many neurodivergent people were taught that we aren’t worthy of boundaries.
For example, neurodivergent children are frequently bullied. Their families may make them feel like they are burdens. Schools frequently make them feel like a nuisance as well.
As an autistic child, I experienced all of these things. As a consequence, as an autistic adult, I have struggled my entire life with setting positive boundaries. But I’ve gotten better.
Boundaries you can set at the holidays
- Avoid travel. Stay home for the holidays. Don’t let family or friends pressure you into stressful holiday travel. If they love you, they will respect your decision.
- Avoid parties. You do not have to host big parties, and you can avoid going to big parties. If you feel guilty turning down invitations, remember, your boundaries are worth it.
- Keep holiday celebrations small. You get to choose whom to invite to your holiday celebrations. You aren’t snubbing people; you are keeping yourself safe and healthy.
- Take breaks. If you choose to attend a larger celebration, take breaks. For example, go to a private room, regulate your emotions, then return. (You can even leave early!)
- Care for yourself. You deserve it.
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery, 2015.
Cook, Julia, Laura Crane, Laura Hull, Laura Bourne, and William Mandy. “Self-Reported Camouflaging Behaviours Used by Autistic Adults during Everyday Social Interactions.” Autism 26, no. 2 (February 2022): 406–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211026754.
Park, Inhwan, Jared Gong, Gregory L. Lyons, Tomoya Hirota, Michio Takahashi, Bora Kim, Seung-yeon Lee, Young Shin Kim, Jeongsoo Lee, and Bennett L. Leventhal. “Prevalence of and Factors Associated with School Bullying in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Cross-Cultural Meta-Analysis.” Yonsei Medical Journal 61, no. 11 (November 1, 2020): 909–22. https://doi.org/10.3349/ymj.2020.61.11.909.
Autistic author Pete Wharmby has created a list of ways that allies can support neurodivergent friends and family at the holidays. Please check it out.