Planning ahead can alleviate holiday stress triggers

  • Published
  • By Maj. Kevin Hooker
  • 412th Medical Group Mental Health Element leader

Holiday stress and depression are often the result of three main trigger points: relationships, finances and physical demands. Understanding these trigger points can help you plan ahead on how to alleviate the stress associated with them.


Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflict can intensify – especially if everyone is thrust together for several days. There is a high potential for conflicts to arise when there are so many needs and interests to accommodate. On the other hand, individuals who face the holidays without their loved ones may find themselves especially lonely or sad.


Like relationships, financial issues can cause stress at any time of the year. Overspending during the holidays on gifts, travel, food and entertainment can increase stress as people try to make ends meet while they simultaneously try to ensure that everyone on their shopping list is happy.

Physical demands

The strain of shopping, attending social gatherings and preparing holiday meals can be exhausting. Feeling exhausted can further increase stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep, which are often good antidotes for stress and fatigue, may take a back seat to chores and errands. High demands, stress, lack of exercise and overindulgence in food and drink are the ingredients for holiday illness.

A dozen strategies to mitigate holiday stress

When stress is at its peak, it can be difficult to stop and regroup. In order to prevent normal holiday depression from progressing into chronic depression, try these tips:

1. Acknowledge your feelings. Recognize that feelings themselves are not right or wrong.  There are a variety of reasons people may actually feel sad or angry during the holiday season. You don’t have to force yourself to be happy simply because that’s an expectation others have for the holidays. It can be helpful to simply acknowledge how you feel and find a healthy outlet for the emotion you’re feeling.

2. Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your social circle. Also, enlist support for organizing your own holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don't have to go it alone.

3. Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions often change as well. In some cases, it may be possible to maintain traditions, but in other cases, it may no longer be possible. When change seems imminent, find ways to keep the spirit of former traditions alive. For example, if the entire extended family can't gather together in one location any longer, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, emails, or video chats.

4. Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. Try to be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are, they're feeling the effects of holiday stress too.

5. Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then, be sure to stick to your budget. If you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Avoid showering people with an avalanche of gifts in an effort to make them happy. In many cases, positive emotions generated from tangible things is often short-lived. Consider donating to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts, or start a family gift exchange.

6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That will help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients, and you'll have time to make another pie if the first one does not work out so well. Allow extra time for travel so that delays won't heighten your stress.

7. Learn to say no. Believe it or not, people will understand if you can't do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you'll avoid feeling resentful and overwhelmed. If it's really not possible to say no to something, try to remove another obligation from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

8. Avoid abandoning healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is fine, but overindulgence may add to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties, so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese, or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep, and schedule time for physical activity.

9. Take a breather. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, even if it's the bathroom, for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing and restores your sense of calmness and wellbeing.

10. Rethink resolutions. Because unrealistic resolutions can set you up for failure, spend time thinking about what you might reasonably be able to accomplish. Don't resolve to change your whole life to make up for past issues. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose resolutions that help you feel valuable and provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.

11. Forget about perfection. Holiday television specials are filled with happy endings, but in real life people don't usually find perfect solutions to problems within an hour or two.  Recognize what you have control over, and take action to influence those areas. Do your best to accept what you do not have control over. Expect and accept imperfection.

12. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, irritable, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep or unable to face even routine chores. If those feelings last for several weeks, talk to your doctor or a mental health provider. Those professionals can help pinpoint the problem and define a plan that will help you improve your mood and daily functioning.

Remember, one key to minimizing holiday stress and depression is recognizing that the holidays can trigger a variety of negative emotions. Make a concerted effort to identify what is bothering you and develop a plan to contend with the issues you have the power to influence. You may actually enjoy the holidays this year more than you thought you would.

If you do need professional support during the holidays, these are some supportive resources available on base that can be helpful:

  • Your chain of command
  • Mental Health/Family Advocacy/ADAPT – 661-277-5291
  • Airman & Family Readiness – 661-277-0723
  • Chaplain – 661-277-2110
  • Employee Assistance Program – 800-222-0364

Editor’s note: Some information for this article was provided by the Mayo Clinic.