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Holidays Are Not Always 'The Most Wonderful Time'

Top four holiday stressors and how to reduce them.

Key points

  • Among U.S. adults, 89% feel stressed at the holidays—especially those with mental illness.
  • For women and those with lower income, the holidays can be particularly stressful.
  • Knowing the type of stress you’re feeling is the first step in overcoming it.

Singer Andy Williams memorialized the winter holidays as “the most wonderful time of the year” in his similarly titled song from the 1960s—with “parties for hosting” and “marshmallows for toasting” and “caroling out in the snow.” But for many people, the tune’s most challenging line is the one that compels you to “be of good cheer”—because, for them, it’s a next-to-impossible task.

A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA; 2023) found that 89% of U.S. adults said they felt stressed at the holidays and 41% said their stress increased during this time compared with other points in the year. The National Alliance on Mental Health (2023) reported that 64% of people living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays. For women and those with lower income, the holidays can be particularly stressful (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 2006).

Here are four of the most common causes of holiday stress.

1. Overwhelm

Overwhelm is an intense, all-encompassing feeling that things are too much to handle, whether emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. It happens when we think we can’t cope with the demands that life places on us. Overwhelm affects us in many ways, from feeling panicky, frozen, or paralyzed, to being mentally slow, excessively sensitive, forgetful, confused, and having difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly, making decisions, or problem-solving. Overwhelm can also impede our sleep and make us feel physically ill or fatigued without knowing why.

How to overcome overwhelm:

  • Identify the primary source of overwhelm. Ask yourself, “What one or two things could be taken off my plate to alleviate 80% of the stress that I feel right now?” And then do that.
  • Set boundaries on your time and to-do’s. Remind yourself it’s OK to say “no” or ask for help.
  • Challenge perfectionism. Know when “good enough” is enough.
  • Challenge your assumptions. Identify and debunk limiting beliefs.
  • Stop ruminating on potential consequences. It can make you feel like the worst is already happening.
  • Do something unexpected, stretch yourself. Train yourself to be more comfortable with uncertainty.
  • Take command of yourself (feeling, thought, and action). Stop trying to control all outcomes. Don’t judge yourself against others. Treat yourself with “benevolent honesty,” that is with kindness and gentleness as you process difficult emotions.
  • Take your own advice. Ask yourself: “If a friend came to me with 'this' worry, what would I tell them?”
  • Don’t look for a rescuer. It only perpetuates the myth that you’re powerless. Instead, seek out a supportive community that sees you as capable and can help you focus on being engaged and productive.

2. Social Isolation and Loneliness

Social isolation is the lack of personal relationships and little to no social support or interaction (and it’s associated with risk even if people don't feel lonely). Loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone or disconnected from others.

According to a 2018 study (National Academies, Sciences, Engineering, Medicine), more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. According to another study (Cigna, 2018), loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. Forty percent of participants also reported they sometimes or always feel their relationships aren’t meaningful and that they feel isolated. At the holidays, these numbers rise.

Social isolation and loneliness are linked to increased risks for depression, anxiety, obesity, addiction, suicidality and self-harm, dementia, type 2 diabetes, poor sleep, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, impaired immunity, and early death.

How to overcome social isolation and loneliness:

  • Push yourself to reach out for support. Schedule time each day to stay connected with family, friends, neighbors, and others.
  • Engage in activities that are meaningful, purposeful, and productive. Volunteer, restart an old hobby, or take an online or in-person class to learn something new.
  • Talk with people you trust and share your feelings. Suggest an activity to nurture and strengthen existing relationships.
  • Use communication technologies such as video chat or smart speakers to help keep you engaged and connected.
  • Consider adopting a pet if you can care for them. Animals are an amazing source of comfort—and may lower stress and blood pressure.
  • Move; stay physically active and include group exercise. Join a walking group or work out with a friend.
  • Introduce yourself to your neighbors. You never know who might be next door.
  • Find a faith-based organization where you can deepen your spirituality and share it with others.
  • Check out local resources and programs at social service agencies, community and senior centers, and public libraries.
  • Join a cause; get involved in your community.

3. Depression

Depression, a condition that negatively affects how people feel, think, and act, affects an estimated 1 in 15 adults (6.7%) in any given year (American Psychiatry Association, 2020). And 1 in 6 people (16.6%) will experience depression at some time in their life (American Psychiatry Association, 2020). For people living with depression, the holidays can be especially difficult. Thoughts about family, relationships, social engagement, and “old times” are quick to surface and flood the mind—which can be particularly painful if there are issues within these dynamics. The holidays also raise expectations of spending more time with family, with fears of old conflicts rearing their head and being difficult to navigate.

The common symptoms of depression are mood swings, lack of energy, loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite or weight, trouble sleeping, fatigue, feeling worthless, hopelessness, sadness or guilt, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and thoughts of death or suicide. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months.

How to manage depression during the holidays

  • See a therapist or other healthcare professional if symptoms are persistent and last more than two weeks.
  • Stay active and get outdoors. Moving your body is one of the best science-backed ways to cope with depression.
  • Stay connected. Share how you’re feeling with trusted others.
  • Monitor your relationships and set boundaries. Limit the time you spend during the holidays with people who trigger negative emotions or exacerbate depressive symptoms. Boundaries are big.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Don’t miss out on nutrients that promote a positive state of being.
  • Get enough sleep. Also, try to keep a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Be realistic about what you can and can’t do.
  • Small stuff: Journal, listen to music, create positive affirmations.

4. Grief

Grief is the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of someone beloved. Grief can also include regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for a mishap or moral injury. Because grief reflects what we love, cherish, or hold most dear, it can feel all-encompassing. Physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and anxiety or apprehension about the future are common symptoms.

Because the holidays are defined by time spent with family and friends, people are also often keenly aware of the absence of a loved one.

How to manage grief during the holidays:

  • Don’t force observance. If the holidays feel inauthentic right now, give yourself permission not to celebrate. Instead, find another activity that is meaningful and engage that.
  • Attend to yourself. Check in with your feelings and thoughts and have realistic expectations for how the holiday season will be.
  • (Again), practice “benevolent honesty”—that is a kindness and gentleness with yourself as you process difficult emotions.
  • Let your loved ones know how they can support you, whether it’s helping you with shopping or getting together for a meal or regular walk. Often, loved ones want to help but don’t know what to say or where to start.
  • “Ride the waves.” Allow painful feelings and emotions to come and go, monitoring their frequency, intensity, and duration.
  • Start a new tradition. Freshness can be cleansing.
  • Listen to your heart; don’t give in to holiday pressures. If you’re at an event and you aren’t “feeling it,” be willing to say to others, “I’m not up to this right now.”

The holidays are often seen as a time of merry-making, brimming with love, celebration, and good cheer. But when someone isn’t feeling particularly cheery, all that cheer can double down on their sadness and despair. Whether it’s us feeling the “holiday blues” or someone we care for, it’s important to be mindful of how we are holding our feelings and what we do in response. My new book Holding Onto Air: The Art and Science of Building a Resilient Spirit has more information about staying healthy and whole during the holidays—and all your days.


American Psychiatry Association (2020). What is depression?

American Psychological Association (2023, November 30). Even a joyous holiday season can cause stress for most Americans.,during%20the%20holidays%20(38%25)

Cigna (2023, June). New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (2006). Holiday stress.

National Academies, Sciences, Engineering, Medicine (2020). “Social isolation and loneliness in older adults,” Consensus Study Report.

National Alliance on Mental Health (2023, April). Mental health by the numbers.

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