woman, looking stressed, sitting near Christmas tree

How to Cope with Holiday Stress

December 15, 2021

With apologies to singer Andy Williams, the weeks between mid-November and early January are not necessarily “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Seasonal fatigue, stress, and anxiety may test our emotions and drain the holidays of festivity. Even our own expectations can sabotage our joy. Nearly 40% of Americans report that they become more stressed out during this time of year, according to the American Psychological Association.

Meanwhile, after months of social distancing for COVID-19, we are likely out of practice with being around many people for long periods of time.

Despite the emotional challenges, making the most of this season is still within our reach, says Zachary Blumkin, PsyD, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and clinical director of the Columbia Day Program. The holidays offer many opportunities to put work aside, catch our breath, and rejoice with loved ones once again.

Three actions, in particular, can go a long way toward making the season merry and bright, Blumkin says:

  • Set boundaries.
  • Be clear about your expectations.
  • Hold empathy about the expectations of others.
people toasting with glasses of champagne

Getty Images

“It’s really important to acknowledge that you can only control your own behaviors, thoughts, and emotions,” Blumkin says.

Even if the wheels come off, though, keep a little perspective: “Some of our greatest holiday blunders have turned out, over time, to become funny stories and even some of the best memories that we have.”

The holiday season emphasizes togetherness, with plenty of can’t-miss parties or other get-togethers on the calendar.

Especially after the pandemic halted such gatherings in 2020, this return to socializing can provide a time of laughter and well-being, Blumkin says. “Seeing family members and friends in a way that I feel comfortable and they feel comfortable about is something that’s really exciting.”

If, instead, you feel tension or worry about an upcoming get-together, Blumkin advises “coping ahead”—think through what’s worrying you, write out the details you’re holding in your mind, and consider whether what you’ve written is likely to happen. With this information in hand, you can start to plan how you’d respond if or when the situation truly arises.

“Rehearsing ahead of time how we would handle possible difficult moments can really help us cope when challenging situations surface,” Blumkin says.

You might worry, for example, about whether wearing a mask at a party is optional or required. The coping-ahead strategy could lead you to anticipate how you would feel about each situation, even to ask the organizer to clarify the expectation of guests.

What you learn can create a path to maximizing your enjoyment: You may decide to limit your time at the party or even to decline the invitation in the interest of sustaining your mental health.

“The pandemic magnifies a common issue of not wanting to set boundaries or limits with other folks,” Blumkin says. “Sometimes we can feel badly about taking care of ourselves and prioritize other peoples’ needs.”

As we realize our own needs and expectations, he adds, it’s important to be open-hearted about the needs and expectations of those around us.

“In really stressful situations, such as a global pandemic, we tend to become polarized,” Blumkin says. “And this perspective can diminish, pretty significantly, our ability to have empathy for somebody else.”

At the holidays, this can play out when a family discussion wades into a hot-button issue and sparks negative reactions.

“If somebody has a different opinion, whether you agree with it or not, it’ll help the relationship to hear them out,” Blumkin says. “You don’t necessarily have to agree with them. Just demonstrate that you understand where they’re coming from, and you’re coming from a different place, and that’s okay. We can still coexist, be close, be friends, even love each other, and have different views.”

Amid all the holiday gatherings, it is worth reflecting that many people have lost loved ones over the past couple of years. Get-togethers may amplify such absences and renew feelings of grief and pain.

Blumkin urges people to “check in on yourself and on others and have realistic expectations that this holiday season may be more challenging than others.” Skipping an event may be the best way to protect raw emotions, “and that’s okay. Try to engage in a pleasant activity, instead. Seeking support from friends, clergy, or family members is really important; so is letting loved ones take care of you.”

For his own part, Blumkin is anticipating a holiday season that is “getting back to the way that it used to be. For all of us, I think that’s something to look forward to, regardless of whether it’s a little different.”


More information

Dr. Zachary Blumkin is an assistant professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and clinical director of the Columbia Day Program.

Dr. Blumkin specializes in working with children, adolescents, young adults, and adults. In addition to providing individual and group therapy, he works with families, parents, and couples. Dr. Blumkin is trained in numerous evidence-based treatment approaches and has a wide range of experience treating psychological disorders as well as working with those affected by chronic illness and/or medical issues.