stressed out woman at an airport

De-Stressing for the Holidays

November 22, 2023

While it is supposed to be a time full of joy, celebration, and meaning, the holidays can sometimes cause stress, anxiety, and depression. Between searching for the perfect gifts, cooking for the whole family, surviving the busy travel days, and dealing with challenging friends and family, the holidays don’t always live up to their reputation as the happiest season. In fact, they are often quite stressful.

“Just managing the logistics of the holidays can be incredibly stressful for many people,” says Arthi Reddy, MD, an internal medicine specialist at the Columbia Primary Care Morningside Practice. “And it’s often an emotionally loaded time of year, too. It can be easy to miss out on the joys of the season without a plan to manage stress.”

We sat down with Dr. Reddy to discuss stress triggers around the holidays and strategies to alleviate them.

Understanding the Holiday Stress Symptoms and Triggers

Holiday stress symptoms can range from mild irritability to severe mood swings, excessive worrying, insomnia, headaches, muscle tension, lack of or increased appetite, and digestive problems.

“It’s not uncommon for stress to manifest as physical symptoms,” says Dr. Reddy. “We often feel the physical symptoms without fully acknowledging the psychological challenges behind them. But it’s all connected.”

There are many reasons the holidays can be particularly stressful for people, including:

  • Financial Pressures: The cost of gift-giving, holiday decorations, travel, and hosting events and parties can strain budgets and cause financial stress from overspending.
  • Family Dynamics or Loneliness: Family gatherings can sometimes be tense, or for those who are isolated or far from loved ones during the holidays, feelings of loneliness and isolation can intensify.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: Imagining picture-perfect celebrations can lead to disappointment when reality falls short. The pressures to create perfect moments and the ideal holiday experience, including perfect decorations, meals, and gifts, can lead to anxiety and stress.
  • Travel Hassles: Traveling during the holiday season can be stressful due to crowded airports, traffic, and weather-related disruptions.
  • Health Concerns: The abundance of rich, sugary foods during the holidays can lead to concerns about diet and health and fear of overeating.
  • Grief and Loss: For those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a painful reminder, leading to grief-related stress.
  • Commercialization: The commercialization of the holidays, emphasizing consumerism and materialism, can detract from the true meaning and spirit of the season.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Some people experience seasonal depression during winter, which can exacerbate holiday stress.

Strategies to Manage Holiday Stress

Recognizing these stressors can help you take proactive steps to have a more balanced and less stressful holiday season. Dr. Reddy offers some practical things you can do to help you handle holiday stress:

  • Plan, Prioritize, and Budget Wisely: Create a to-do list or a schedule for the holiday season and prioritize the most important tasks and events to ensure you're not overwhelmed. Set a budget for gifts, decorations, and other expenses, and stick to it. Consider homemade or thoughtful, inexpensive gifts.
  • Set Realistic Expectations and Time Management: Be realistic about what you can accomplish during the holidays. Don't try to do too much or make everything perfect and accept that not everything will go as planned. And remember, you can say “No.” It's okay to decline invitations or requests and set boundaries. Manage your time effectively by setting aside specific times for shopping, cooking, decorating, and other holiday activities. And try not to procrastinate, as last-minute rushing can increase stress.
  • Set realistic expectations and Delegate Tasks: You don't have to do everything yourself. Share responsibilities with family members or friends. Delegate tasks like cooking, cleaning, or gift wrapping to others.
  • Self-Care and Self-Compassion: Make self-care a priority. Keep exercising and then take breaks to relax and recharge. Take time for yourself to do the things you enjoy, limit alcohol, eat healthy, and remember to get enough sleep. Lean on your support network when you can, and try not to be so hard on yourself. 
  • Practice Mindfulness and Relaxation: Take time to reflect on the positive aspects of your life and focus on gratitude. Finding the true meaning of the holidays, whether it's spending time with loved ones, religious observance, or celebrating kindness, can help relieve holiday stress.

Most importantly, have fun. Laugh and enjoy yourself when you can. Nobody's holiday season is perfect. And if you need help, get help. If your holiday stress becomes overwhelming or you're dealing with more serious mental health issues, don't hesitate to contact a professional for support.


Arthi Reddy, MD is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and an internal medicine specialist at the Columbia Primary Care Morningside Practice.