Keep Calm and Celebrate On: How to Control the Holiday Stress that Dampens Your Cheer


We feel it, but we don’t want to admit it. A tiny, creeping dread lingers somewhere in the background of all the things we love this time of year: candied yams, a few days off work, winning an intergenerational Scrabble game, and watching an animated three-year-old tear into a wrapped gift. Holidays should perk us up during an otherwise drab season, yet the pressures they bring often have the opposite effect.

Just making plans begins the string of stressors. Elizabeth H. Winston, PhD, is a psychologist in Madison and says no one is immune. “Couples I see often need to figure out who to spend time with for which holidays. Single people might be anxious about whether or not they have somewhere to go,” she says. “Older generations tend to be worried they won’t be able to see their grandkids or children as much as they’d hoped.”

Elizabeth emphasizes the importance of clarifying your goals and setting expectations to avoid drawn out anxiety. “Family members all bring different expectations to the holidays,” she says. Couples or close family members should speak to each other and be on the same page before starting conversations with extended family. Think carefully about which festivities you want to attend and don’t feel obligated to accept every invitation. If your family knows you’ll be late for Thanksgiving dinner because you fit in two meals, but that you’ll arrive in time for pie, no one will be disappointed.

Of course, not everyone enjoys planning ahead. “Some people are planners, and some are not. Neither is correct, they are just different,” Elizabeth says. She suggests trying to view differences in a neutral way and says both types need to accommodate each other—planners can offer non-planners flexibility within parameters and then in turn go with the flow. For example, if a planner wants to know that while his non-planner children are home he can take them cross-country skiing, he could ask them to agree to ski either on Monday or Tuesday.

With relatives and friends you don’t see often, you might have only two or three interactions each year in which to represent an entire relationship. “Families feel pressure to act as intimately connected as they wish they were,” says Elizabeth. You might not know faraway relatives as well as you’d like (outside of their Facebook pages), so interacting with them requires more energy because you’re trying to get acquainted and update each other simultaneously.

Similarly, parents and grown children who don’t see each other regularly might feel disconnected at first. “When people go home as adults, they know themselves as they are now. But family members or friends may still know them as younger versions of themselves and treat them that way. Impressions are not always caught up to how we are now, and it can be distressing,” says Elizabeth.

Make it a point to spend time with people whose company you enjoy, seek out the people you want to get to know, and give yourself mental breaks if you feel overstimulated or misunderstood. If you’re at a large dinner, Elizabeth suggests you go into a different room. Wash dishes in the kitchen, take the dog for a walk, or offer to give parents a break by playing with the younger kids. Run an errand with someone you’re close to or call a friend to remember who you are today. All of these activities add variety and give you a chance to recharge.

Clashes between family styles (for example, yours and your partner’s) are another common stressor. Some families freely express emotion and some are stoic. An expressive person might feel judged as overly sensitive or dramatic by a family of stoics, and a reserved person might not know how to react around expression. Neither type will feel like themselves in those situations.

Especially in the beginning, in-laws and partners don’t know each other very well. In this situation, children need to educate their parents about their partner and demonstrate their allegiance to him or her. If the conversation tends to be fast-paced and your partner can’t get a word in, create opportunities for smaller discussions where fewer people compete for airtime. If your partner thrives on competition but your family doesn’t, low-stakes table tennis could bridge the gap.

Over the years, everyone experiences life changes that garner joy and concern from loved ones. Those who didn’t witness what went into decisions to move overseas, end a relationship, or accept a new job will want to process the change and show their concern or happiness by asking questions or offering input. Most people are well-meaning, yet their comments might feel unhelpful.

Perhaps you’ve made the decision to quit your job, and your aunt tells you that her biggest regret was not sticking with her first job out of college where the people she started with are now in charge. If she’s someone you respect, try to hear what she has to say. “You don’t need to reject the entire message. Look for useful pieces,” says Elizabeth. Ask your aunt about the path she did take and get her tips for starting somewhere new. Remember that ultimately your choices are your own.

Before each holiday or gathering, take time to reflect on what you’ve learned from previous years and apply it. “If last year you tried to bake 12 dozen cookies or make hundreds of potato latkes and didn’t sleep for three nights, consider making fewer,” Elizabeth says. “Or start earlier and freeze them.”

Ask yourself what the most important things are to you this time of year and plan to experience them. It may feel counterintuitive to think about your own needs during the giving season, but it’s important to consider. If you value social justice, block off time to volunteer and only attend social events that fit around it. If you’re cutting back on alcohol, make it clear to those around you that you’re not secretly hoping someone will sneak more wine into your glass. Tell others your plans, then relax.

Photo by Maison Meredith Photography

If you find yourself getting worked up in the moment, Elizabeth suggests simply thinking, “This is time-limited. This will have an end.” It also serves as a reminder to savor the togetherness while you can. “Our culture puts a lot of expectations on us for the holidays,” says Elizabeth. “The holidays will hopefully be positive and fun, but they will not be a Hallmark commercial. They will be real life.” And isn’t that better?

Learn more about Elizabeth at

Cara Lombardo is a writer and a CPA.