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Holiday Anxiety: Common Causes and How to Cope

8 min read

By Katherine George

  • The holidays can be an extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing time, even for people who don’t have any previous history with anxiety.
  • Things like money, family dynamics, social anxiety, and loneliness can all instigate feelings of anxiety around the holidays.
  • To cope with these feelings, try to plan ahead, create a budget for spending, say ‘no’ when necessary, and set aside some personal time.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…or is it? The holidays bring lots of cheer and joy, but they also bring stress and anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 44-percent of women and 31-percent of men report increased stress around the holidays.

While it might be impossible for some people to avoid holiday anxiety altogether, there are things people can do to minimize the impact and better manage their stress levels. First, we have to identify the cause, so here’s a round up of the most common causes of holiday anxiety and tips on how to cope…

Spending Too Much Money

Despite being told the holidays aren’t about gifts, most people still spend a great deal of time, effort, and money on gifts for others. Expenses are also heightened during the holidays for people who have to travel to see their family. They have to shell out money for flights, gas, or hotels.

Other holiday expenses may include events and parties where people feel the need to purchase new outfits. If someone is hosting a together, it likely will require a great deal of food and alcohol. The cost of groceries and everything else has been on the rise since 2020, so people are likely feeling the impact of inflation and experiencing some anxiety on how they’ll cover the cost of this holiday season.

Highlight Loneliness

It’s an incredibly busy time of year with many obligations and expectations, but can also be a reminder of the past or what’s lacking. When this happens it can stir up feelings of loneliness. People can feel lonely at any time, but these feelings might become heightened during the holidays. It might seem like everyone else is cozied up with their loved ones, except you.

These feelings of loneliness could stem from the passing of a loved one and how they are no longer around to celebrate the holidays with. It could also stem from a recent break up. You might be thinking about the previous holiday season with a significant other and how things were different. It can be an especially hard time for co-parents if they have to split the holiday with the other parent.

Family Issues

The holidays are a time to spend with loved ones which usually includes family. Some people might find a great deal of comfort in returning to their childhood home, but that’s not the case for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone gets along with their family or shares fond memories of their past. This can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety during the holiday season when they are forced to revisit.

Not only that, but sometimes family members disagree on things like politics, religion, parenting, or any other hot button topic. These types of conversations tend to arise during large gatherings, especially if there’s drinking involved. Anxiety can become even more heightened if people are already struggling with their own internal issues.

Social Anxiety

The holidays are one of the most socially-active seasons of the year! While some people feel energized when they spend time socializing, other people dread this type of engagement. According to Anxiety Canada, a survey conducted in North America found that 45-percent of respondents dread the holidays. A big reason for this is social anxiety.

For people with social anxiety, “the thought of family gatherings and office parties can seem overwhelming, and the increase in social engagements over the holidays can be a source of trepidation and dread,” writes the source. You might be nervous about saying something embarrassing or worry about what others will think. This anxiety could stem from personal issues like fertility, eating or mental health disorders. Whatever it might be, there are ways to cope and better manage these feelings.

How to Cope

Acknowledge Your Feelings

It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge feelings that aren’t positive, but suppressing them isn’t the answer. They won’t go away until they are dealt with. The first step is to acknowledge any feelings of anxiety or stress. It’s not a bad thing to feel these emotions. In fact, it’s what makes us human!

This is especially true for people who are going through a tough time during the holidays. If someone close to you has recently passed away, it’s normal to feel grief. It’s normal to feel loneliness after a break up, and it’s okay to be stressed about work, social gatherings, or the never ending list of chores. Acknowledge these feelings, cry if necessary, or express them to whoever needs to hear them. You can’t force a smile just because it’s the holiday season.

Set a Budget

Money is one of the biggest stressors during the holiday season. There’s a lot to buy, from gifts to food, drinks, decor, and new outfits. The problem with all of this is that many people live pay cheque to pay cheque, so spending a lot of money in a short period of time can be extremely stressful.

The best way to cope or better manage this anxiety is by setting a budget and following it. Also, don’t feel pressured to spend money when it’s not necessary. Make a list of all the food that’s needed for a meal before heading to the grocery store. This helps avoid overspending. Do the same when it comes to buying gifts! Set a budget for meals and gifts, and stick to it. You can also skip gifts and donate to a charity in someone’s name, give a homemade gift, or start a family exchange.

Set Aside Differences

We don’t get to choose our family which means we don’t always share the same opinions, beliefs, or interests as them. This is sometimes a recipe for disaster at family gatherings and can foster tense and stressful situations. Regardless of our differences, they are still our family and we might choose to spend the holidays with them for the sake of other family members.

If this is the case, it might be a good idea to go into the gathering with the intention of setting aside any and all differences. If there’s an ongoing argument between family members or friends, try to squash it or shelf it for the time being. “Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry,” writes the Mayo Clinic. It’s likely that other family members or friends are also feeling the effects of holiday anxiety, so cut them some slack as well if they seem to be feeling a bit off or sensitive.

Be Realistic

These days it’s hard not to compare our lives to others. Social media has made it nearly impossible not to compare. Even when we know other people are only sharing the highlights from their life, we still might get envious of what they are doing, how their house looks, the clothes they wear, how much money they are spending on gifts and parties, etc. The list goes on and on.

We can also compare within our own lives, but this holiday season might look different than last year. Families change and grow, traditions and rituals may change along with them. Not everything stays the same and while sometimes that’s a good thing, people can often have a hard time letting go. Try to be open to creating new traditions or honoring whatever the new reality is. If adult children or certain relatives can’t make it this year, find a new way to celebrate with them (i.e a virtual hang out or share pictures through email).

Don’t set high expectations that are unattainable. Honor what life looks like today and try to be realistic with any expectations for this holiday season.

Learn to Say ‘No’

This one is for all those people pleasers out there! Don’t feel obligated to attend every holiday party, event, or hang out. Scheduling conflicts aren’t the only reason to turn down an invite. You might also just be feeling extremely overwhelmed and stressed out. If saying ‘yes’ is only going to exacerbate those emotions or cause resentment, it’s not worth it. Get comfortable with saying ‘no’ when it’s necessary.

Don’t worry about hurting peoples feelings. Friends, family, and coworkers will understand that it’s not possible to participate in every project or activity. Bosses should also understand not being able to work overtime all the time. Depending on the relationship, be honest about why it’s not going to work. They wouldn’t want to create more stress and anxiety. If it’s because your plate is already too full, consider lightening the load in the future.

Plan Ahead

If stress is a major cause of holiday anxiety it might be helpful to plan ahead. You can tackle the holidays just like any other big project or task — with lots of planning, organizing, and scheduling. There are a lot of things to take care of in a short period of time, from buying gifts, baking treats, cooking meals, hosting and attending parties, etc.

You might want to schedule specific days for certain things. Spend one day buying gifts and another day dedicated to cooking or baking. If there’s a lot of shopping to do, consider whether any of it can be done online. This can be a huge time saver. You might also want to plan out a shopping list and what gifts to purchase for each person. This can help make the task of buying gifts seem a little less overwhelming, avoids last minute scrambling, and prevents overspending.

Invest in Personal Health

It’s okay to be selfish sometimes, especially when it comes to our own health and happiness. The holidays are such a busy time of year and oftentimes most of it is spent focusing on other people — whether that’s time with friends, family, volunteering, or working extra hours, there’s not a lot of ‘me’ time. But it’s important to take time for yourself during the holidays.

The Mayo Clinic advises even doing just 15-minutes alone without any distractions. The idea is to provide some time to refresh and reset which will hopefully give you the energy needed to tackle the rest of that never ending to-do list. During those 15-minutes, find something to do that will help reduce stress. It should be something enjoyable like taking a walk, listening to music, or reading a book.

Also, during the holidays it’s important not to let healthy habits slip away because this will only contribute to the stress and anxiety. Try to make time for regular exercise, get lots of sleep, and don’t go overboard with indulging in sweets and treats or alcohol.

Seek Out or Ask for Help

We all need a little help sometimes, particularly when it comes to our health. Mental health often gets overlooked because it’s not necessarily tangible or easy to identify. While it’s normal to feel sad occasionally, it shouldn’t interfere with everyday life. According to the Mayo Clinic, someone who is persistently sad and anxious, irritable, feeling hopeless, unable to fulfill daily chores or activities, unable to sleep, and even experiencing physical symptoms may be experiencing depression. If this is the case, talk to a doctor or mental health professional.

Also, don’t be afraid to talk to family and friends about how you’re feeling. The holidays can be a difficult time of year for people who’ve experienced loss or are going through a big change, such as a break up, divorce, or career change. Let them be there for you through support and companionship. Volunteering is another good and easy way to lift your spirits and meet new people, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Senior Managing Editor

Katherine is the Senior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat and Childhood. She is constantly striving to live a more active and healthy life, from eating healthy, exercising, and just spending more time outdoors. She enjoys cooking (with wine), walking her dog, reading, and recently joined a yoga studio!

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