How Do the Holidays Affect Mental Health - single ornament hanging from christmas tree

How Do the Holidays Affect Mental Health?

Liadan Gunter
November 23, 2022
November 23, 2022

This blog post was written by Liadan Gunter, Life Coach at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

’Tis the season! The time of year when we’re supposed to be celebrating and feeling merry. However, not everyone may feel that way. I’m here to let you know that this is completely normal!

According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people said that during the holiday season they have increased stress leading to depression, anxiety, physical illnesses, and even substance misuse. Reasons for these ailments include loneliness, grief and loss, financial pressures, family stressors, work-life balance, and travel. 

The good news is, there are some strategies we can use to cope with these stressors during this time of year. 

When You Feel Lonely and Grief-Stricken Around the Holidays

Not everyone has the same relationship with the holidays. Many may feel that they need to get into the holiday spirit, but don’t feel like they can. This can be due a wide range of reasons. Some of you may have lost a loved one recently or around the holidays in the past. Some of you may not have anyone to celebrate with—perhaps you’re going through a divorce or a break-up, or you simply don’t have family and friends around you. This can lead to a lot of negative feelings, even exclusion, as you watch others around you celebrating and being happy, but you yourself are not. Alternatively, perhaps, the holidays that are being celebrated are not a part of your religion or tradition, so you don’t quite know how to respond. 

If you’re feeling lonely, please know that you’re not alone. One simple step you can take is to look for people that may feel the same way as you. Find someone you can talk to about these feelings: a trusted friend, a family member, or even an acquaintance that may be going through something similar. This is not an isolated experience, so please just know that you’re not alone. 

Additionally, you may consider looking for some professional support such as a coach or a therapist to support you during this time. If you are grieving or are triggered by something that happened around the holidays in the past, get to know your triggers so that you may work around them. This is where the support of a professional may be useful to help you identify them and come up with a game plan. Additionally, there are many types of support groups; check for some in your area that may apply to your experience. If one doesn’t exist, you may consider creating a group on MeetUp and organizing an event in your area. 

Related: Tips For Managing Grief at Work

When the Family and Friend Events are Getting to You

These stressors can come in many different shapes and forms, but one major strategy is to have boundaries and have realistic expectations of ourselves. Sometimes the expectations we have about the holidays can get in our heads, and we compare ourselves and our own experience to this idealized version. As a result, we may feel guilt about our own experience not matching up. 

Decide which activities are important to you to engage in. Try to remove some of that pressure to engage in all of them. If you don’t feel like participating, remember you don’t have to. So make a list of the of the ones you will prioritize, and then communicate your priorities to your loved ones as soon as you can. This way, you’ll have freed up your time to prepare and remove the worry of trying to decide what you’re doing, and you can put your mind at ease faster.

 Not all family gatherings are blissful; many can be riddled with family conflicts. If you have decided to attend a gathering that you know may be difficult, try to engage in extra self-care and place limits on the difficult events that may be occurring. If you don’t get along with your mother, try to limit the amount of time you have with her. Perhaps you can communicate that you will only be at the event for X amount of time, and stick with it. Or if you are there for days, perhaps you communicate in advance that you will have other commitments during that time, so you can safely excuse yourself when you feel overwhelmed. 

The key takeaway here is this: Decide how much time you can handle of each activity or event, and communicate that beforehand. If you know a four-day event will be too much for you, just commit to the amount of that will be beneficial to you.

Leading up to and during the events, try to engage in self-care. Many times around the holidays we put so much pressure on ourselves to show up for others that we forget ourselves. This is your holiday too, so please choose what is best for you, and engage is self-care activities that support you and your mental health during this time.

When the Financial Pressures are Getting to You

Another common stressor is the cost of the holidays. 1 in 4 people go into debt to afford the cost of the holiday, 27% say holiday shopping strains their budget, and 17% say that they feel pressure to spend money they don't have during the holidays. 

Can you relate? You may be wanting to show people how much they mean to you by buying them the perfect gift, or you want to create a cozy and magical space at home that’s decorated for the holidays, or perhaps you live far from your loved ones and to celebrate with them you’ll have to travel a considerable distance. Celebrating the holidays can cost a lot, but it doesn’t have to.

When it comes to gifts, try to set a budget that you feel comfortable with—one that won’t affect the rest of your budget. If buying big gifts is out of your budget, consider something more heartfelt gifts such as writing a letter, or something meaningful to that person that doesn’t have to cost a lot. You might even consider an act of service. Alternatively, propose a secret Santa. If you can’t afford gifts this year, that’s okay too! 

When it comes to travel costs for the holidays, create a budget for that as well. If you’re not able to make it, let your people know. Additionally, you may consider starting a holiday fund for the future, so you can set aside some money each month for the end of the year so when you get to the holidays you have some money tucked away for it already. If that’s not an option, that’s alright too. 

Balancing Work and Family Time

This one is tricky regardless of if you are traveling to celebrate the holidays or if you’re staying put. Perhaps you’re hosting a big holiday dinner at your house: you’re juggling the meal prep, shopping, cleaning, kids, and work. That’s a lot for anyone! So try to reach out for support. Delegate some tasks, or ask people to bring certain dishes. Ask for support when you are working so that not everything falls on your shoulders. As the holidays approach, organize your tasks in advance so that you can delegate some of the work to others and do a little each day in preparation so that it doesn’t all fall on you at the last minute. Also, by planning in advance you can ensure that the tasks have been all divided up with enough time so that they can be executed. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed,  cut yourself some slack and take some things off the to-do list. Decide if everything is really necessary. Remember that you want to enjoy the holiday, so be mindful as you decide which things to take on. If you don’t have a lot of support, don’t put the pressure on yourself to do it all. Take some time to reflect on what is reasonable for you to do as one person and do that.

Regardless of which side of the coin you are on—whether you love or merely tolerate the holidays—it’s important to be kind to one another, and remember that the holidays mean different things to different people. We don’t have to do everything perfectly—buy the perfect gift, cook the perfect meal, or have the best decorations in town. What’s important is that we enjoy them, and take care of ourselves if they aren’t a happy time. Every situation is unique for each and every one of you; remember that, and take care accordingly. Set your own rules and expectations and silence the noise of how the holidays should be. Do what’s right for you. 

Another topic I didn’t touch upon is how food may affect mental health during the holidays—if you’re struggling with this, here is a great article to help: How to Practice Healthy Eating During the Holidays

Check out this video for more details on this topic.


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Liadan Gunter
Liadan Gunter
Liadan Maire Gunter is a Coach, Behavioral Scientist, and Founder of The Rewiring Lens. She is trained in neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology, before creating her own path in the field of self-development. At Nivati, she works as a life coach and content writer where she bridges the gap between science and self-development. She also runs a company, The Rewiring Lens, aimed at bringing science-backed tools designed to rewire people’s brains so that they can create their best selves. There she co-hosts a podcast on the same subject.