7 Strategies for Holiday Stress ManagementReading Time: 6 minutes
The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, celebration, and togetherness. But for most people, the holiday season is definitely not the jolliest time of the year. Young people in particular find the holidays stressful: A Healthline survey found that 65 percent of Gen Z were stressed out by the holiday season, a higher number than either millennials or Boomers.
What makes this season so difficult? “Family drama” was one of the top reasons cited in the survey, along with finances and struggles with eating and exercise. Grief and loss can also feel particularly intense during the holidays. For young people who are dealing with trauma, anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, or another mental health issue, the challenges of the holidays can make symptoms worse. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, two-thirds of those with mental health concerns report that the holidays make their condition worse.
Real life is a lot messier and more complicated than a Hallmark Christmas movie. In addition, mental health during the holidays often takes a nosedive because we’re thrown off our usual self-care schedules. However, committing to simple yet effective holiday stress management strategies can help young adults navigate the season without falling prey to the holiday blues.
The Difference Between the Holiday Blues and SAD
The season’s colder weather and darker nights can make us more vulnerable to moodiness and negativity. Can we chalk that up to the holiday blues, or is it seasonal affective disorder? So-called holiday depression syndrome can be closely related to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, beginning and ending at about the same times every year. Generally, most people who suffer from SAD start feeling symptoms in the fall, which continue through the winter and ease up or disappear once warm weather returns.
Holiday depression syndrome follows a similar timeline, but there are some clear differences. For one, the symptoms are usually much less severe; SAD symptoms can be acute and debilitating. Moreover, SAD extends for a longer period of time, from autumn into spring, while the holiday blues typically begin in November or December and lift after the new year.
But if you’re experiencing ongoing depressive symptoms, such as lethargy, sadness, and difficulty concentrating, it’s important to seek care immediately and not wait for the feelings to go away on their own. Treatment for depression is more effective the earlier it begins. Holiday stress management techniques can be helpful, but they should not be a substitute for professional care if symptoms continue.
How Family Relationships Contribute to Holiday Stress
Because family is traditionally at the center of holiday activities, family relationships—or the lack of these relationships—are one of the biggest factors contributing to the holiday blues. This season can be especially hard for those who have troubled relationships with family members. The same is true for those who are no longer in contact with family due to childhood trauma or other issues, such as a parent’s mental health or substance abuse struggles. The imagery of loving families that is everywhere at this time of year can bring up feelings of loneliness, grief, anger, and disappointment.
But even families who have strong and caring relationships can hit snags at this time of year. Spending lots of time together in close quarters often brings up old conflicts and disagreements. Furthermore, young adults who are returning home after living on their own can fall back into the rebellious behaviors they had as teens—particularly if their parents haven’t adjusted yet to treating them as fellow adults rather than children.
One of the most effective ways to improve family relationships is to focus on your own well-being. The following therapist-approved strategies for holiday stress management will benefit young adult mental health while supporting more positive and fulfilling interactions with family.
7 Tips for Reducing Stress During the Holidays
These holiday wellness tips can help young adults have a more enjoyable and harmonious holiday season.
Create healthy boundaries. This can apply to relationships as well as self-care. For example, you may need to create boundaries around how much time you will spend with certain family members who can be emotionally triggering. Or you may need to set clear limits for alcohol consumption if you know you’ll be going to lots of holiday parties with friends or family who have unhealthy drinking habits. You might also limit the number of get-togethers you’ll attend, and choose the ones that will be most supportive for your mental health.
Get enough sleep. A study published in December 2020 found that sleep is one of the top three pillars of mental health and well-being for young adults. This age group needs between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation—but between technology, socializing, and stress, it’s not easy to achieve that on a regular basis. To improve sleep quality and quantity, try these six tips for good sleep hygiene.
Remember that you’re not the only one feeling the holiday blues. You are not alone—struggles with mental health during the holidays are very common. The recognition that “it’s okay to not be okay” is just as true during the holiday season. Practice self-compassion, and reach out to loved ones who will understand and empathize with the emotions you’re experiencing.
Maintain your regular exercise schedule. Exercise is proven to increase stress resilience. So, along with all the holiday-related activities on your list, schedule in some physical activity. When you’ve blocked out time beforehand, you’ll be less likely to let it go. You can use exercise as a good excuse to take a break from family and have some “me time,” or you can involve the family—do a yoga class together, take a hike in the woods, or go to a rock-climbing gym or ice skating.
Do something for others. Research shows that volunteering offers mental and physical health benefits, and there are lots of opportunities to do so during the holiday season. When we help others, our brains produce more feel-good chemicals, like oxytocin and progesterone. In turn, these neurochemicals lower stress and promote overall health and well-being. Volunteering can also promote family bonding and connection.
Set realistic expectations. If the holidays tend to be a challenging time for you and your family, don’t expect that everything will change this year—even if you’ve changed and grown. Rather than striving for a picture-perfect holiday season, recognize and prepare for the moments that might be hard. At the same time, consider setting up a few activities that are likely to be successful and fun for you and your family, whether that’s attending a sports event, cross-country skiing, or going to a holiday street fair together.
Focus on what’s meaningful for you about the holidays. Whether or not you relate to the religious significance of the winter holidays, you can find a sense of meaning and authentic connection during this season—connection with yourself, others, and your greater community. Take some time to reflect on what the holidays represent to you now, and which aspects of this time enhance your well-being and your relationships. Consider how you can bring more of those experiences to the forefront.
Treating Depression During the Holidays and Beyond
As we’ve seen, it’s not unusual to experience holiday blues during this time of year. But if depressive symptoms are severe, or if they last longer than a week or two, the next step is to get a comprehensive mental health assessment and explore treatment options.
At Newport Institute, we address the underlying causes of mental health conditions like depression, rather than focusing on the symptoms. Our clinical model is designed to heal the trauma and attachment wounds that catalyze psychological and behavioral issues—and may be particularly painful during the holidays. A key aspect of our treatment approach is repairing ruptured parent-child relationships, through the groundbreaking Attachment-Based Family Therapy model.
Entering treatment for mental health during the holidays can be difficult. But it’s the most meaningful and long-lasting gift you can give yourself and your family. Contact us today to learn more about our specialized, industry-leading care for young adult depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, and other co-occurring disorders. We’re here for you every day of the year.