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How to Beat Holiday Stress

Whether you're feeling anxious, worried or lonely, we've got tips for bringing back some peace of mind

Woman carrying shopping bags on snowy street

ARIEL SKELLEY/GETTY IMAGES

Whether you're looking forward to the holidays or secretly dreading them, chances are there's something about the run-up to the new year that leaves you feeling less than jolly — or that actively ignites anxiety and apprehension.

Maybe you don't trust yourself around the punch bowl, or your wallet is hurting. You may have had words with a family member and fear a challenge ahead at an upcoming get-together. Being alone might be getting you down.

For some, their own expectations are threatening to derail the holiday spirit. “Sometimes you get wrapped up in the rigidities of tradition, and want to create the perfect holiday, finding the right present or perfect holiday card,” says Joanna Scheier, LCSW, and a family and individual therapist in Montclair, N.J. As she says, you can be overwhelmed by impossible standards, and nobody wins.

Understanding what may threaten your merriment is a good place to start. Here, five common problem areas you might already be anxious about, and expert strategies to help you avoid feeling stuffed, sick, broke, burnt out or lonely during the coming season.

If you're stressed that your heart is full, but your wallet is light..."We love to take time at the holidays to send an email reminding our clients that they are, or aren't, on track with their budget,” says Eileen O'Connor, CEO and wealth advisor at Hemington Wealth Management in Falls Church, Virginia, who notes that clients call at the holidays to ask if they can afford everything from a party to a pricey holiday dress to a manicure.

Travel, she notes, is one cost that sneaks up on older clients. Same for donations: You may be inundated with requests for charitable gifts. “Stress comes in with struggling with whether or not you can afford this thing you say you want."

In her view, “everything is a trade-off,” one that can become a lot clearer if you have a well-defined “savings target.” As in, the yearlong budget shouldn't get thrown out the window in November or December. So ask yourself: Do you know what you can afford to spend on holiday expenses? If you want to go beyond your usual monthly allotment, can you make up the difference in the coming months? How? Figuring out those bigger questions, O'Connor notes, will help you approach your holiday spending with more clarity and, hopefully, reduce the guilt and stress you might otherwise feel over each and every purchase.

If you're feeling particular pressure around giving gifts to family, friends or coworkers, O'Connor recommends first questioning where this pressure is coming from. “We make up things in our mind such as so-and-so needs a gift,” she says. Rather than give in to every gift-giving whim (from internal or outside pressure), she recommends setting guidelines for things like family giving. Her extended family, for instance, employs a no-gift rule, following the assumption that “No one needs more stuff or wants it.” Another approach is to only give gifts to children. If you're throwing a big party, consider if that can be your present to others. “It's expensive!” she says.

When considering what to give friends or coworkers, know that “data has shown that if you make someone feel appreciated, that means more than a gift itself.” If you decide you want to purchase items for everyone on the list, head to the store with a dollar limit for each gift to cut down on some budgetary anxiety.

If you're worried you'll pay for all those extra calories well into the new year... "There's a motif of consumption over the holidays,” says Scheier. It's a time when food magically appears at every turn and you may very well be moved to eat everything in sight. To make it through with less stress, build up your defenses to unnecessary calories — and lose the guilt about saying no to things you don't especially like, or to not finishing your plate if you've had enough.

Brooklyn-based Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color, says that her number one defensive eating strategy for party season is “don't arrive hungry” to a holiday event, and don't skip meals leading up to it. “Enjoy the food but don't go in ravenous,” she advises.

Before you go to a party, Largeman-Roth advises, have a fiber and protein snack, such as an apple with a cheese stick, or nut butter or avocado on toast. “Having a snack beforehand helps you put the brakes on later,” she says. She also advises not positioning yourself at the buffet table, to lessen the chances of “food amnesia” (you may graze and forget to keep track of what you put in your mouth). Allow yourself to have half-portions of things as well.

Otherwise, stand firm, and know that you don't need to eat to please anyone but yourself. Try what looks irresistible at the buffet, and pass on the rest. If hosts urge seconds or a surplus of treats on you, say you're stuffed but you'll take a goodie bag home, says Largeman-Roth. “What you do with that later is up to you,” she says.

At a time when food gifts are prevalent, also think about unloading any that tempt you to overeat on a school, shelter or neighbor. And try modeling healthy eating by giving citrus items or healthy nuts as gifts instead of lots of sugar.


For expert tips to help feel your best, get AARP’s monthly Health newsletter.


If you're realizing the holidays tend to turn into the most inebriated time of the year... Consider an alcohol plan. “The stress levels at the holidays make it easy to run into trouble with drinking,” says psychologist Mark Edison, clinical instructor in psychiatry and medicine specializing in alcohol misuse at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. “So rather than drinking whatever someone puts into your hand, plan what you're going to drink — and how many drinks — before you start celebrating.”

Edison suggests keeping a drinking diary ahead of the festivities so that you're in touch with your behavior, and have a firm grasp on how many drinks you can handle. “Include what you drink and when, who you're with, and your feelings and thoughts before, during and after drinking. After two to four weeks, you'll get a good picture."

"Many people drink too fast during the holidays because alcohol is so good at calming holiday nerves,” says Edison. Some rules of thumb:

  • Know before you go how your medications interact with alcohol.
  • Don't have more than one drink per hour.
  • Change the kind of alcohol you drink, such as beer instead of hard liquor.
  • Have a full glass of water after every alcoholic drink.

If you want to abstain or at least temper your intake but also want to avoid attention, make or order a drink without alcohol and keep it in your hand the whole time. “Luckily,” Edison says, “the vast majority of people don't care what you're doing. It's relatively rare that someone pushes you to have a drink."

"A glass of soda water with lime will give the look and feel of an alcoholic beverage,” adds Eric Ascher, DO, a family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, “and amid seasonal conversations with cup in hand, you will not realize the absence of alcohol.”

You can also water down your drinks. “If you choose wine for the night, add low calorie soda or soda water to dilute the drink and make it last longer,” Ascher recommends. “Adding extra ice to all of your beverages will have the same effect."

If you're feeling too overwhelmed by social or family obligations to actually look forward to them...This time of year, it's easy to feel inundated by social obligations. “While extroverts might find a lot of parties energizing, other people may find them taxing,” Scheier says.

Plan ahead and keep your expectations in check. “You might try to expand your social experience at this time of year,” Scheier says, “but it's also OK to have boundaries.”

  • Think through your personal party limits. There's nothing wrong with weighing your commitments against your sleep schedule or deciding to make short appearances. Sending your regrets to some invites early is not only polite, it can remove some weight from your shoulders.
  • Ask yourself, if you go lighter on the drinking, will all the parties feel a lot more manageable?
  • For peace of mind, consider balancing social obligations with dedicated “me time” in your calendar, either in the middle of a busy season or at the end, as a reward.
  • If you have a partner, share your apprehension about something like the upcoming office party, and see if you can work together to make things easier. Maybe you make a deal to leave by a certain hour, to check in regularly with each other, or to take two cars in case you want to make an earlier exit.

If you're simply feeling lonely... One recent report found that 46 percent of Americans feel lonely on a regular basis. And according to a study for the American Psychological Association, 26 percent of adults feel particularly lonely over the holidays. While you can certainly feel isolated in a crowded room, plenty of people feel that way because they're — well — alone. For those who are divorced or widowed or are an empty-nester, the holidays can have all kinds of mental health triggers.

One easy fix? Consider activities that help you do good. Science has shown that those who give back experience not only mental health benefits but physical benefits, too. “Put yourself out there,” Scheier advises. This year, a study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that widowed people who volunteered for two hours a week or more felt less intense loneliness. You can learn about volunteer opportunities — at shelters, food pantries, children's hospitals, animal rescue centers and more — through your place of worship or local listings.

If you're light on company for a particular holiday, try to fill the days around it. Reach out to an old pal or invite someone simply to have a coffee or attend a reading at the library. Get involved in a community project. And don't hold back from asking what others are up to themselves; you never know when someone else might appreciate some comaraderie around the holidays.

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