The holidays can be a stressful time. Here are 5 ways to overcome holiday stress this year.

As a child, the holiday season was the highlight of my year. A constant dreamer, I built the holidays up in my mind as this magical, marvellous event. The build-up would begin after my birthday in October and reach its crescendo on Christmas Day. At the Mayfield household, we would have Christmas morning at home with my immediate family and then go to my grandparents’ house later for Christmas dinner. However, finding the hope I dreamed of always came with a tremendous amount of holiday stress.

Christmas dinner was always an ordeal. My grandparents and parents expected us to dress up in our finest Christmas clothes and present ourselves to the formal dining room decked out with all the Christmas fixings. We were expected to look a certain way and act a certain way, and I never felt like I could live up to those standards. As a child, it was challenging to manage those expectations. I almost always left my grandparents’ home anxious and frustrated. The expectations I had built up in my mind for the holidays never came to fruition. Disappointment erased my excitement, and, inevitably, I’d leave with my hopes dashed. Was it my family’s fault? Or was it my unrealistic expectations for the holiday season?

‘Tis the Season for Holiday Stress

The holidays can be a stressful time. A thousand questions run through our minds. What gift should I buy my aunt? What should I bring for dinner? Will so-and-so be there? We haven’t seen each other in a year; what will we talk about? Will I have to spend time with people I don’t get along with?

The holidays tend to produce an added measure of anxiety into the mix of life. Our expectations for this time of year don’t often reflect reality. Many times, we attach our perceptions about the way things “should” be to those expectations. Here’s an example.

Many of us don’t see our families much because we live scattered across the country. Add extended family to the mix, and there is potential for creating a whole extra layer of issues. The ideas of how things “should” look enter in when we begin to play mind games with ourselves and anticipate our family or other people’s expectations of us (whether real or imagined).

Now, introduce a global pandemic, and the plot thickens. More questions flood into our minds. Should I go to a holiday gathering or should I stay home? What will people think of me if I attend? Who will I disappoint if I stay home? Will there be conflict over politics or vaccines? If 2021 hasn’t been difficult enough, the fear adds yet another layer of stress!

5 Ways to Overcome Holiday Stress

In light of everything going on, how do you maintain your sanity and safety, create boundaries, increase communication, and avoid conflict? Here are 5 ways to overcome holiday stress this Christmas:

1. Create a List of Personal Expectations
The number one catalyst for communication miscues and conflicts are misguided or unmet expectations. Usually, we develop a picture of what we will experience in our heads, but we don’t tend to verbalise or write down those expectations. When the experience doesn’t play out as we imagined or thought it should, we become irritable and disappointed. These emotions have the potential to rub off on others. Create a mindset of flexibility and have an open mind when it comes to the holidays. Then enjoy how the day plays out.

2. Pre-Plan Your Battles
Pre-planning your battles is an exercise in creativity and planning ahead. Think about what could go wrong during the holidays. Make a list of the worst-case scenarios and brainstorm how you would handle each situation ahead of time. Think through the details of how you would respond or react to each case. This exercise allows you the opportunity to develop a planned response rather than reacting in the heat of the moment. It will allow for improved communication and can reduce possible conflicts.

3. Focus on Your Emotional Intelligence
During the holidays, I am acutely aware that emotions tend to get the best of us. You must maintain awareness of your emotional status and adjust accordingly. Suppose you know that particular activities or a specific family member rubs you the wrong way or tends to push your buttons. In that case, it is your responsibility to control your reactions and set appropriate boundaries. I pay close attention to how patient I am. If my patience is running thin, I know that I am moving toward being emotionally overwhelmed and need a break. I will retreat to a bedroom or find a quiet place to re-centre and refocus before re-engaging with my family.

4. Remind Yourself the Holidays Are Not About You
In our commercial society, it’s easy to develop a mindset that the holidays are about us. This mindset will often lead to disappointment and hurt feelings. Instead of holding on to a selfish perspective, take a step back and recognise that unmet needs from your childhood might not be resolved over the holidays. Instead, develop a mindset of curiosity, a posture of seeking to understand, listen, find hope, and cultivate a desire to get to know someone else a bit deeper.

5. Find Ways to Engage Hope
2021 has been quite a year, and it isn’t over. Instead of being bogged down by the world’s chaos this Christmas holiday, find ways to focus on what matters most. The G.L.A.D. exercise has been helpful to me in refocusing my attention toward finding hope.

G: Name something you are GRATEFUL for today.
L: Name something you LEARNED today.
A: Name something you ACCOMPLISHED today.
D: Name something that brought you DELIGHT today.

You can use this exercise in one of two ways. First, you can use it to refocus your mindset. Journal your responses before bed and share them with your spouse or family member. Second, you can use this exercise as questions to help spur on a conversation with your family as you sit around the dinner table. Of course, if you do the second one, try to make it a natural part of the conversation.

These five ways to overcome holiday stress are by no means exhaustive. In all honesty, I could have created a list of over 100 tips. My encouragement to you this holiday season is to remind yourself that everyone is stressed, and everyone has experienced a global pandemic. It is important to remember that ignoring stress could turn into more significant problems. I see this all the time in my clinical practice. If stress builds up, the cortisol hormone can negatively affect our immune system, leading to sickness.

Furthermore, unmitigated stress can lead to negative thinking patterns, which can lead to bouts with anxiety and depression. Find ways to care for yourself, relieve stress, and find hope this holiday season. Listen well, extend grace, and radiate the love of Christ every chance you get.

© 2020 Mark Mayfield. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at

Dr Mark A. Mayfield

Dr. Mark A. Mayfield has been a counsellor to at-risk teens, families and couples for more than 10 years. He is the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counselling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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