What to Do If You're Feeling the Stress This Holiday Season

Try these therapist-backed tips for keeping calm and happy.

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Everyone feels stressed from time to time, but for many, the holiday season is particularly difficult. From familial expectations and obligations to the pressure to buy the perfect gift, December can be a lot. Stress, anxiety, and depression are often at an all-time high during the holidays—and they can hurt your health.

“The pressure to show up a certain way emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually can be incredibly taxing on people,” Lana Seiler, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Parade. This is often exacerbated during the holiday season.  “The idea of seeing family members, the stress of traveling—and having the means to travel—and the pressure to feel that you should be in a certain place in your life to please others are triggers that often contribute to holiday stress,” Seiler continues. “The season is also a reminder of grief and loss.”

But you do not have to sit back and struggle. You do not have to merely “muscle through.” There are numerous ways to cope with holiday stress. Here are 50 therapist-approved tips to help you feel better, during the holidays and everyday. Trust us, you'll want to write these ones down.

1. Get outside during daylight hours. Dr. Doreen Marshall, PhD, counselor at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention tells Parade that getting out is imperative. “Having fewer hours of daylight can have a negative impact on your mood, especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression,” Marshall says.

2. Connect with others if you’re feeling lonely. “Chances are pretty good that you are not alone in feeling lonely during the holidays and sharing how you are feeling may empower others to do the same,” Marshall says. Reach out to someone who may also be feeling that way and talk about ways you can stay connected and support each other.

3. Do at least one thing to improve your sleep. Maintaining a sleep schedule can help you to better navigate the stressful moments of the season.

4. Learn to say "no." While saying “no” may seem hurtful and insignificant, Mike Veny—a certified wellness specialist—tells Paradeyou can say "no" in a positive way that protects your boundaries and the relationship.

5. Take breaks from holiday activities, events, and work. Marshall tells Parade it is essential to schedule “downtime” throughout November to January, especially following stressful holiday events.

6. Stick to a budget. Using cash instead of credit cards if possible will help decrease financial stress.

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7. Remove something from your holiday “to-do” list. “If you find yourself overextended this holiday season, let go of something that adds to your stress level,” Marshall says. “If you’re not in the mood to send holiday cards, then don’t. Want to avoid awkward gift exchanges? Tell others early on that you won’t be exchanging gifts this year.”

8. Practice mindfulness. What are you feeling? Hearing? Seeing? Just be present in the moment.

9. Choose your thoughts. “Our thoughts are powerful,” Veny tells Parade. “If you notice that you're sinking into negative self-talk or other negative thinking, choose to focus on a positive affirmation instead. Predetermine a few affirmations and thoughts that counteract negative thoughts you struggle with.”

10. Find a balance between being with others and being alone. You may not have the energy or desire to attend a large gathering this year, and that’s okay. But it’s also important not to completely isolate yourself. Marshall suggests inviting a couple of people to join you in a low-pressure activity.

11. Be realistic. Remember the holidays don’t have to be perfect, or even like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.

12. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Eat healthy meals, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly. Avoid excessive tobacco, alcohol and drug use.

13. Find the choices within the obligations. “Assuming you can’t avoid stressful obligations entirely, find ways to give yourself as much choice as possible,” Marshall says. “Avoid contentious conversations by taking a walk after dinner, for example, or excusing yourself to use the restroom. Plan to leave early and/or have a buddy that you can call during tense moments to debrief. Remember: you don’t have to attend to every argument you are invited to.”

14. Prioritize activities that support your mental health. 

15. Identify a “safe” person to alert if mental health concerns arise.

16. Do a mind sweep. “Take a pen and paper and write down everything that's on your mind,” Veny says. “This can be anything from your shopping list to your frustrations about your virtual work party. When you're done, look at the list to see what you can take action on that's within your power. Change what you can. Acknowledge that which you can’t.”

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17. Reach out to someone. Particularly if you’re feeling isolated or lonely.

18. Keep a gratitude journal. Sometimes appreciating what we have can help us maintain a cheerier long-term outlook. When you practice giving thanks for even the smallest of things, such as a visit with a friend or a day off from work, you can keep your frustrations in perspective.

19. Don’t force a celebration if you aren’t up for it. Boundaries are important and essential, as is saying “no.”

20. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all. “You have a lot going on,” David Rakofsky, PsyD, a psychologist and the president of the Chicago-based Wellington Counseling Group, tells Parade. “You can’t possibly do it all. Instead of lamenting your ‘losses,’ congratulate yourself on the everyday victories, like leaving the bed, smiling, and putting on pants.”

21. Develop or lean into hobbies.

22. Do something that you previously enjoyed, even if you don't want to or don't feel like it. You may be surprised by the positive effect it may have on you.

23. Identify your triggers and try to manage or avoid them.

24. Gain control. “Know that you actually have control over what you participate in and what you don’t,” Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist, tells Parade. “Don’t feel compelled to accept every invitation. Get comfortable saying ‘no’ to what you don’t want and ‘yes' to the things you truly believe in. Doing so will help you to feel less resentful and stressed and much calmer during the holidays.”

25. Keep your priorities in focus. “You do not have to attend a party or celebration just because you were invited,” Mary Ann Mercer, self help and relationship expert at Positive Life Answers explains. “Remember:  You have choices, so be selective about your time.  Prioritize your invitations and ask yourself if those really are people you want to spend time with especially if you are feeling time-bankrupt.”

26. Practice yoga or meditation.

27. Schedule 30 minutes each day for yourself: to read, exercise, or take a bath.

28. Talk on the phone with a friend.

29. Make an appointment with your therapist.

30. Examine your negativity. Scrooge isn’t just a fictitious character. There are some who strongly believe the holidays are nonsense and serve no purpose. But Alpert tells Parade that by making small changes to how you think, you’ll be able to make big changes in how you feel.

31. Put your phone on silent, or place it in airplane mode.

32. Uninstall social media apps, like Facebook or Instagram, if they make you agitated or anxious. Social media envy is real and it can add undue pressure to an already stressful season.

33. Lay on the floor for five minutes and just breathe.

34. If possible, plan a short getaway. Take a couple of days where you just focus on yourself.

35. Establish—or reestablish—boundaries. “If your parents' questions about when you'll get married or your brother's outspoken criticism of your job are normal sources of stress for you each year, it may be time to have a conversation about what you will and won't tolerate during the holidays this time around,” Saba Harouni Lurie—a licensed marriage and family Therapist and the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy, a group psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles — tells Parade.

36. Acknowledge that holidays aren't always a happy time for everyone—and that’s okay. “While holidays are a great time for many families to connect, not everyone shares this experience,” Dr. Danielle Hairston, MD and psychiatrist, tells Parade. “Recognize that these times can be hard for people experiencing grief, and reach out to your friends/people who have lost loved ones. Just checking in can help people to realize that they are not alone.”

37. Take regular breaks. Deep breathing decreases your cortisol levels and can help lower blood pressure and heart rate.

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38. Find time for self-reflection. “Acknowledging how you are feeling is important, as everything may not feel merry and jolly 24/7,” Daniela Wolfe,  a licensed master social worker, tells Parade. “And really lean into and recognize where your feelings are coming from. Unrealistic expectations? Grief over all that has changed and been? Family stress? Whatever it may be: when you take the time to acknowledge and recognize it, then can you more proactively plan healthy ways to address and cope with those feelings.”

39. Ask for help when you need it and/or are feeling overwhelmed. No task is too small.

40. Stay present. Enjoy moments of happiness when they're here.

41. Plan ahead. Having an action plan in place will help you feel more stable and in control.

42. Keep routines, whenever possible. “The holidays are often a time of abandon, which can be great fun. However, holiday anxiety can also make us slip up on self-care,” Dr. Grant Brenner, board-certified psychiatrist, tells Parade. “Due to the sense of stress, especially around endings and beginnings, we tend to rationalize dropping basic self-care activities. Keep routines on days you can keep them, and substitute on days you can't.”

43. Take a hot bath or shower. 

44. Sing at home, with friends, or go caroling in your neighborhood.

45. Listen to music you enjoy. The health benefits of music are numerous.

46. Find a local support group. From NA and AA to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, there are meetings for every person and need.

47. Walk through your neighborhood with no point or purpose. Instead, notice the flowers, trees, animals, and sights.

48. Light a candle or burn some incense. Aromatherapy can help center and ground you, particularly during stressful times.

49. Laugh. Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified relationship therapist, tells Parade that sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. “Watch a comedy, read a joke book, or have a laugh online with friends. It's a great way to shift your energy and lighten up.”

50. Appoint a buddy. “Before you go to a gathering, find someone in your family or partner who can be your escape buddy,” Dr. Georgia Witkin, a clinical psychologist, tells Parade. “This person can be given a code word that signals them to jump into the conversation or interrupt to take you outside.”

And finally, know that while there is no way to avoid stress entirely, you can take steps to make the holidays feel more manageable. Hang in there!

Next up: 60 Ideas for How to Spend a Mental Health Day