By Dr. Katie E. Golden, MD

The holiday season is busy. I mean joyful. No, I mean busy. And this can make it easy to overlook all the ways it affects your mental health. Many people are familiar with the way this time of year can be hard for some. But you don’t need to have lived through a major trauma or loss for the holidays to take a toll on your well-being. So here, we’ll shine a light on the hiddens stressors of this festive season. And offer some tips on how you can get through the holidays stress free-ish. 

Let’s start by acknowledging all the ways you may be feeling stress — even if you don’t realize it. Here is just a small snapshot of the way that holiday agenda items may be encroaching on your mental health:

The Time Crunch. Both planning for and celebrating the holidays takes an enormous amount of time. It’s full of gift shopping, gift wrapping, cooking, holiday parties, greeting cards, holiday travel, increased traffic. Not to mention tracking down packages and deleting promo emails. The ripple effect of holiday preparations often leaves people with little time to actually enjoy them. 

Money. Most Americans cite finances as the top stressor of the holidays. But it’s not just affording gifts that can weigh on you. Many people spend a lot of mental energy worrying about who to buy for, what to get them, and how much money to spend. 

Family Dynamics. Yes yes, we all love our family — most of the time. But sprinkled among joyful reunions and festive traditions are complicated relationships and triggering memories. When people return home, many adults find themselves falling into old patterns and juvenile behaviors. Psychology experts have even coined this ‘holiday regression.’ And no one wants to relive teenage angst. 

Holiday FOMO. This is a big one. The holidays can generate a lot of stress when people feel pressure to participate. And this goes well beyond the fear of missing out on social activities. People are feeling the pressure to celebrate the season in all sorts of ways: give gifts, decorate the house, take advantage of sales, cook special meals, send holiday cards listing all the ways their children are amazing. And then advertise all these moments on social media. (Further perpetuating the FOMO.) This is not only difficult for people who are feeling sad, lonely, or anxious over the holidays. It’s hard for anyone who knows another human. 

Booze. Many people will drink more alcohol over the holidays — especially to cope with all the stressors above. But many people don’t realize that alcohol can actually increase anxiety. When you drink alcohol, it releases a chemical in the brain — called GABA — that helps you feel relaxed. But ultimately, alcohol actually depletes the amount of GABA in the brain. This means that when alcohol is not in your system, you can easily feel overstimulated, anxious, or panicked. Cue more alcohol. Cue less GABA. Cue when it feels like there is no other way to get through a whole dinner with your family. You can take the downward spiral from here.

Dark days. Finally, a source of holiday stress that we can blame on the environment rather than human behavior. This time of year also coincides with shorter days and greyer weather. This can translate to lower Vitamin D levels, less physical activity, and changing hormone levels in the body. And all of these things can affect your mood. It can also cause more significant feelings of depression for people who are prone to seasonal affective disorder

Some holiday headaches are unavoidable. Like mall traffic. And mall santas. But the following reminders can go a long way in keeping you relaxed and healthy during this busy season: 

  • Say no to FOMO. If a holiday event or family gatherings feels tiresome or stress provoking, don’t go. You don’t have an obligation to uphold traditions or expectations. Stay home in your pajamas and watch trash television if that seems more appealing.
  • Establish boundaries with family. If you are dreading a certain aspect of returning home or seeing relatives, put parameters in place to change it. Like asking your parents to leave politics out of dinner conversation (raised hand over here). 
  • You don’t need to get everyone a gift. And if you do, you don’t have to spend a lot of money. Even a small gift, homemade cookies, or a nice card shows someone you care. And you might just inspire others to do the same. 
  • Unsubscribe from emails. Promotional emails. Subscriber emails. Work emails. (Okay maybe not the last one, but give yourself permission to not respond outside working hours.)
  • Be mindful of the booze. If you know you can get carried away with the ‘nog, set your intentions with alcohol consumption. It helps some people to set a drink cap before parties or outings. Or a night alone on your couch with wine. There’s no judgment here. 
  • Take small walks. Especially on sunny days. It will get you a dose of Vitamin D, a little exercise, and a break from your in-laws. Look at that efficiency — it will free up more time for shopping. Just kidding. Don’t go shopping. We’ve been over that.
  • Schedule downtime. Cancel one errand today and reclaim that time for yourself. Take the dog for a walk, listen to a podcast, treat yourself to a cappuccino and a cookie. Not every minute of every day needs to be productive. And you don’t have to get it all done.
  • Acts of kindness. Volunteer or do something nice for a stranger. Not for them – to hell with that. Do it for you. There is solid evidence to show this boosts endorphins and gives people a sense of purpose and community.

Most importantly, reach out for help or support when you need it. If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, substance use, shopping addiction, mother-in-law angst, or just feeling not quite like yourself — talk to someone. A friend. A healthcare provider. A stranger in the line at the post office. We’re all in this together.