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Managing Holiday Stress

Learn to Cope with Holiday Stress


Updated December 01, 2010

How can you manage holiday stress and survive the holiday season intact? The holiday season is a great time to practice some new coping skills.

Sources of Holiday Stress

Sure, many people think of the holiday season as a time of joy, but the truth is that most people also experience significantly more stress during the holidays than at any other time of the year. There are more than a few sources of holiday stress.

First, holidays are associated with family and friends. For many, this is a pleasant part of the season. But not everyone has contact or good relationships with their family members, and others may not have a wealth of people close to them at all. If you fall into this latter group, you may feel lonely, isolated, or stressed by the expectation that you should spend time with others during the holidays.

Second, you may have visitors in your home during the holidays, or you may have to travel for gatherings. This means major disruptions to the day-to-day routine. While these are sometimes welcome disruptions, they can also throw you off balance by interfering with your normal eating, sleeping, and exercise schedules. That can increase your emotional vulnerability and leave you feeling irritable, moody, or more likely to fly off the handle.

Coping with Holiday Stress

So how do you cope with the inevitable stress of the holidays? The key is having a lot of different coping skills in your toolbox to really manage all of it and keep an even keel.

Practice Good Emotion Regulation

It is so important that you practice behaviors that promote good emotional regulation during the holiday season. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we start to feel moody, angry, and emotionally exhausted. We might start having emotional reactions that are far more intense than is warranted for the situation.

The key to keeping your emotions regulated is to keep your lifestyle regulated. This means eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, and getting regular exercise. Of course, it is hard to do all of that perfectly during the holiday season, but it is important to pay attention and notice if one of these is starting to slip.
Tips on Maintaining Good Sleep

Take Breaks

Sometimes, in the whirlwind of the holiday season, we forget that we all need some down time. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, take a break. Fill a bubble bath, listen to some music, watch a movie, or take a brisk walk. Be compassionate with yourself. You can’t do it all, and the more you expect yourself to, the less you will be able to accomplish.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the skill of being aware of the present moment, including what is happening in the external world (outside of you) and what is going on inside (your thoughts, feelings, and emotions).

How can mindfulness be helpful on the holidays? During the holiday season, we are almost constantly in our heads, thinking about the next thing or things in the past. We are rarely able to stay in the moment. But since we can only actually live one moment at a time, perhaps it makes sense to just practice staying in that moment, rather than jumping from past to present and back again.

If you’ve never tried to practice mindfulness, here are some ways to get started:


“Contribute” is one skill that is taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT teaches skills for dealing with emotion dysregulation, and the “contribute” skill is a perfect one for dealing with holiday stress.

The essential idea is that giving to others is a coping skill that will actually benefit you. Think about the last time you did something for someone else, selflessly and not out of obligation. It doesn’t have to be something big; maybe you just smiled and waved someone in front of you while driving. Didn’t that feel good? Contributing doesn’t just benefit the other person, it benefits you, too.

Contributing is a particularly good skill to use if you are lonely on the holidays. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, and not only will you be distracted from how lonely you feel, you will also get the positive feelings associated with having something to offer someone else.

Learn More Coping Skills

This short list is just the beginning; there are literally hundreds of coping skills you can add to your toolbox. If you want to learn more, check out these articles on coping with stress:


Chapman A, Gratz K. The Borderline Personality Disorder Survival Guide. New Harbinger Publications; 2007.

McKay M, Wood JC, Brantley J. Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, & Distress Tolerance. New Harbinger Publications; 2007.

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