4 Ways to Stay Calm This Holiday Season

Family gatherings, social media and shopping are enough to stress anyone out. Here's how to get relief.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

The holidays can be a lot to handle. There are family gatherings to attend, presents to buy, end-of-year work deadlines to hit—and social media to show you just how poised and happy everyone else is with it all.

Elizabeth Block, MD, a psychiatrist at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System in Chelsea, Michigan, wants to help us understand why we get stressed this time of year and what we can do to calm anxiety and ruminating thoughts. Read on for practical strategies that will help settle your nerves so you can actually enjoy the hustle and bustle.

Why winter wreaks havoc on your emotions
There are a variety of reasons you might notice changes in your mood during the winter months. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is the weather. “As it gets colder and darker, we tend to skip activities that are healthy for us,” says Dr. Block. “It’s harder to get outdoors and engage in physical activity, which ordinarily can help improve our moods and reduce stress.”

Along similar lines, some people—5 to 10 percent of Americans, in fact—will experience a more severe condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a form of depression that usually comes about in fall and winter and subsides by spring. Symptoms such as low energy levels, sleep trouble, agitation, difficulty concentrating and loss of interest in activities are usually a result of shorter days and decreased sunlight.

Never-ending to-do lists and packed schedules can also contribute to stress and anxiety during the holiday season. “There are all kinds of expectations with regard to our families, socializing with friends, plus work,” says Block. “All of these pressures can be overwhelming.”

The expenses associated with the holiday season—including travel and gift-buying—can also put strain on your wallet and your mind, leading to more anxiety, especially if money is already tight.

Lastly, because of the record-high use of social media, it seems like everything we do these days is under a spotlight, and it might not be good for us. A 2016 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine examined the relationship between social media use and depression among young adults 19 to 32. The researchers found that those who spent more time on social media were more likely to be depressed.

Meanwhile, as smartphone use is increasing, wellness indicators like happiness, self-esteem and life satisfaction are decreasing—and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are on the rise. The National Alliance on Mental Health says the boom in social media and increase in mental health issues may be related.

For some, viewing Instagram and Facebook feeds full of holiday cards, party photos, expensive gifts and lavish vacations may be uplifting and inspirational. But for others, these could trigger feelings of comparison, envy, loneliness and depression.

Whether it’s social media, a tight budget or just too much of everything, the winter season may be getting to you. Here are some of the ways Block suggests her patients ease the strain.

Take a look at the past
When gearing up for the winter season, it may help to recall how things have gone in the past. “Looking back and doing an inventory about things that were challenging or stressful during last holiday season can be really helpful,” says Block. “Once you identify the stressors you’ve experienced before, you can plan for them in case they crop up again.”

That may mean making a careful to-do list well in advance of a dinner party you are hosting, game-planning how you’re going to navigate an awkward work relationship at the office party or starting to stash cash in a holiday savings account at the beginning of each year.   

Put something on the schedule that’s for just you
It may sound cliché, but self-care is really important, says Block. In the midst of shorter days, longer checklists and greater financial strains, taking time to care for yourself can calm your mind and may help you enjoy the holiday season that much more.

Block suggests signing up for new experiences that can help put some pep in your step. She enjoys experimenting with different exercise classes, trying out new recipes and incorporating new foods into her diet. Find something you’ve always wanted to try, block off time in your calendar—and make sure it actually happens.

Stumped for novelties to try? There’s no shame in sticking to the basics. Simply getting outdoors for a brisk half-hour walk—whether during your lunch break at the office or before the kids come home from school—can do wonders for your mindset and overall health. The Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android) tracks your steps to help you maintain the habits.

Power down
It’s tough to do, but disconnecting from social media—even for a little bit—can not only help minimize thoughts of comparison but can also free up real-life time for the ones you love.

When you do find yourself going down a rabbit hole—otherwise known as your Instagram feed—it can be useful to remember that most people’s feeds are merely highlights of their lives, sometimes filled with fake smiles and photo editing, rather than documentaries of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Try turning off your phone and keeping it out of sight when spending time with family, says Block. It can help you stay present at holiday parties and get-togethers. Powering down your devices an hour or more before bedtime may also help you sleep better. What to do with the time you’ve earned back? Consider trying gratitude journaling or a little mindful meditation, instead.

Don’t feel bad about saying no
It can be tempting to join your church’s holiday giving committee, work at your son’s school holiday party and bring your favorite dishes to your office potluck. The reality is that doing it all may not be possible or even advisable.

“If you’re feeling overextended or stressed, it’s okay to set a limit,” says Block. Pick the few commitments that are most important to you and make those a priority. If you’re hosting a party, try delegating tasks so you’re not responsible for everything.

Another tip? If you have last-minute shopping to do, don’t be a hero and brave the malls. Try online shopping instead, where you can put your feet up, cozy up by the fire and sip on a warm mug of tea.

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