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7 Tips for Lower Holiday Stress

A therapist shares ideas to get the most enjoyment from the season.

Key points

  • Letting go of some social expectations can provide the freedom to redefine the holidays to align with one's authentic desires.
  • Altruism and self-care are essential to keep stress levels low.
  • Short-term counseling, such as through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), can help alleviate excess holiday stress.
Creating new traditions supports authentic enjoyment of the holidays
Source: Anthony Shkraba/Pexels

The holidays can be a challenging time. For some, this can mean severe struggles with mental health. Anyone with such concerns must seek support from their own medical or mental health professionals. But even for those who do not suffer from clinical disorders, it’s common to experience more typical holiday stress. While no single approach suits everyone, the following is a list of ideas that have been beneficial to many people who find themselves experiencing higher than normal levels of stress this time of year.

1. Be Intentional About Visiting Family

A sense of obligation can all too often dictate that people spend the entirety of their holidays around others whose company they don’t genuinely enjoy.

Or worse, families can regress to old patterns of dysfunction or even abuse. Whichever is the case, prolonged unwanted contact is a recipe for a miserable holiday experience. Deciding on personal boundaries beforehand can be helpful. These can include intentional decisions not only regarding who to spend time with, but how much time, in what location, and even the ground rules that, if violated, would end the visit.

2. Have Friendsgiving/Friendsmas Get Together

While setting limits with relatives can often be beneficial, conversely, expanding one’s celebration circle to include friends and surrogate family can also enhance the holiday experience. The complexities of 21st-century society have prompted many to redefine what family is (Young, 2021). Friends can be invited to family celebrations or separate holiday parties with a chosen group. This can also be a great opportunity to invent new traditions. The experience can be completely tailored to the preferences of the attendees. Some people even come to view “Friendsgiving” and “Friendsmas” as their “real” celebration of the holiday.

3. Practice Self-care

Proper eating, sleeping, exercising, and enjoying hobbies can often take a back seat to other priorities during the holidays. This again is setting the stage for disappointment as lack of self-care erodes the ability to cope with the increased stressors of the holidays. A growing body of evidence stresses the importance of this practice, and the number of effective interventions continues to expand (Jaarsma et al., 2020). Davis (2018) and other experts are widely available online for those who would like to learn more.

4. Care for Others

An appropriate amount of shifting attention and concern to others can lead to a deeper enjoyment of the holiday season. The positive effects of volunteering and other forms of altruism are well documented. For example, something as simple as reading to a child can have tremendous emotional benefits for an adult (Rabinowitz et al., 2021). Recentering one’s focus on others rather than oneself (without compromising one’s happiness) can often feel empowering because the steps may seem more achievable and concrete.

5. Ignore Social Media

Another well-documented phenomenon in psychology is the detrimental effect of social media on mental health. Public awareness of this industry’s toxic impact on wellbeing is beginning to rise in the wake of whistleblower reports and media exposés (Clayton, 2021). Many reasons exist for this harmful effect, but one mechanism is the tendency of people to engage in “what-ifs” by comparing their lives to the carefully curated images presented by others. This phenomenon is known in psychology as “counterfactual upwards comparison” and can lead to negative mental states (Medvec et al., 1995). This can even be rooted in a well-known bias towards loss and negativity inherent to our human neurological structure (Decision Lab, 2021). Overcoming this tendency can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because it is so deeply engrained. Little to no engagement with social media usually provides the best environment for emotional wellbeing to flourish.

6. Forgetting How One “Should” Feel

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert (2012) has uncovered many fascinating aspects of how the brain constructs happiness. One of the key takeaways of his work is that human beings are utterly inept at predicting what will make them happy. Pining after some vision for what one hopes life would have been is not only unhealthy and futile, it’s also likely factually wrong that the alternate reality would have led to more happiness. Instead, focusing on one’s gratitude for the positives that do exist in one’s life can have profound benefits.

7. Seek Counseling

Experiencing a mental health disorder isn’t the only reason to seek counseling. It’s difficult to imagine someone who would not benefit from having a weekly opportunity to process their feelings out loud and get objective input from a professional and neutral third party. This is one reason why an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can be very advantageous. A growing number of employers are including counseling sessions as an EAP benefit, which generally does not require the employee to have a diagnosable disorder or go through medical insurance for payment approval. The delivery methods of therapy services are also becoming more flexible, with online therapy sites serving clients in diverse geographic locations and many therapists offering services via video conferencing.

Whatever circumstances may work for a particular person, prioritizing mental health can be the key to lowering stress levels during the holidays and enjoying them genuinely.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Clayton, J. (2021, October 6). Facebook harms children and weakens democracy: Ex-employee. BBC News. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Davis, T. (2018, December 28). Self-care: 12 ways to take Better Care of yourself. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from….

Decision Lab. (2021, September 30). Loss aversion - biases & heuristics. The Decision Lab. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Gilbert, D. (2012, April 26). The surprising science of happiness | Dan Gilbert - YouTube. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Jaarsma, T., Strömberg, A., Dunbar, S. B., Fitzsimons, D., Lee, C., Middleton, S., Vellone, E., Freedland, K. E., & Riegel, B. (2020). Self-care research: How to grow the evidence base? International Journal of Nursing Studies, 105, 103555.

Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among olympic medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603–610.

Rabinowitz, S., Pavlov, C., Mireku, B., Ying, K., Zhang, J., & Read, K. (2021, October 12). I feel less blue when I read with you: The effect of reading aloud with a child on adult readers' affect. Frontiers. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Young, G. (2021, September 21). Being adopted as an adult healed me. DNA testing did not. Psychology Today. Retrieved October 25, 2021, from….

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