The Most Stressful Time of the Year

Winter holidays can bring out the worst feelings.

Posted Nov 26, 2019

Back in 2015, I wrote a post called “‘Tis the Season to Be Miserable.” This year, on the cusp of Thanksgiving and what is, for many people, the beginning of the most stressful time of the year, I wanted to revisit some of the ideas I presented in that post, and update it for 2019.

What are some causes of stress at this time of year?

Changes in weather and decreased sunlight: For many people, winter is a time when energy goes way down. Decreased sunlight and colder weather keep us inside much of the day, so we don’t get as many opportunities to increase our energy the way we do in warmer, brighter months.

The idea of taking a quick walk at lunch in 40-degree weather may not be so appealing, nor may an evening stroll in the dark. In addition, many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern.

Increased family time: For people who have difficult relationships with family members, this time of year offers many opportunities to feel uncomfortable, slighted, angry, or sad, which is a very different set of feelings from the emotions that folks with happier family relationships experience. The anticipation of the stressors of family time, or isolation due to not having positive relationships with family members, can impact stress levels.

Greater focus on food and alcohol: For people who struggle with food or alcohol, from everyday struggles like portion control and managing drinking to clinical challenges, such as eating disorders and substance misuse disorders, the winter holiday season, with 10+ parties in six weeks, is an invitation for stress.

Different patterns: The onset of winter holidays means that patterns that keep us steady during the rest of the year slip away. Workplaces shut down, friends go on vacation, kids come out of school, more money is often spent. Stepping out of our comfort zones is by its very nature uncomfortable, and that discomfort, multiplied several times over, can be stressful. 

What are some ways to protect against stress this season?

Light therapy: Bringing more light into your day through a lightbox is a research-backed therapy for SAD. (It has not been shown to affect depression that is not connected to SAD. If you don’t experience SAD, but do notice that the lack of light is affecting you, consider changing some patterns so that you can take in more light during the day: Sit by a window, bundle up and go for that walk, or even light candles in your home to create a peaceful atmosphere. 

Take control of your schedule: You don’t have to accept every invitation. (I have given you permission to say no.) You can leave parties early. You can bring a friend or an object of comfort. You can go to the work party and aim to talk to two people instead of 20. If everyone is leaving the office early, leave early, too.

Take the time to prepare: Practicing what to say if, a) your uncle asks you about politics, b) your mom reminds you that you haven’t brought anyone to her Thanksgiving table in five years, or c) your friend keeps offering you drinks, and you’re done after one, can help when the questions and comments start coming. Practice with yourself, a trustworthy friend, or a therapist. 

Do something just for yourself: This is a season of giving, in all ways, except one: We give outward, but not inward. What would it look like to do something just for yourself between now and the new year? What is something that you have wanted but haven’t allowed yourself to do?

Whether it’s something small (a new pair of shoes!), something in-between (donating that chair that you’ve had for a decade, but don’t like anymore), or something bigger (taking an art class), taking the time to do something that is just for you can help replenish you at a time when you may feel drained. 

Wishing you health, boundaries, and light this season. 

Copyright 2019 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved