Coping with Holiday Stress

Posted on 11/19/2013 08:17:00 AM

The holiday season is upon us.  We've planned our Thanksgiving menu, and Christmas is looming—but it’s not just Christmas Day, or eight days of Hanukkah. It is work and neighborhood parties, school concerts, cookie exchanges, serving dinner at the local shelter, ornament exchanges, visiting in-laws, Secret Santas, writing and actually mailing the perfect holiday newsletter (including matching sweaters for the photo), planning meals and decorations worthy of Martha Stewart, caroling at the local nursing home, teacher gifts, religious services, continuing generations-long traditions we feel we must keep at the expense of starting our own, and providing children a Santa experience that keeps up with the Joneses, all while everyone is perfectly loving and gentle, and coming in under budget.


I love the holidays, and there are worthwhile things in the above list. But, it can easily become a stressful time. In fact, Christmas makes the list as a stressor that can contribute to illness. Why is this the case?  Often, we hear organization advice about how to make the holidays less stressful. However, I think it is less about organization, but something deeper.


In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, unrealistic expectations might come from thinking errors. There are several types of thinking errors, also called distorted thoughts, but the two that I believe drive us to be distressed at the holidays are: Emotional Reasoning and Should Statements.

Emotional Reasoning- we act on feelings as if they were fact. For example, a person feels terrified about flying in an airplane, then acts as if flying is truly an incredibly dangerous undertaking, and only travels by train.

Should Statements- our internal dialogue containing rigid and perfectionistic standards for ourselves or others that cannot be attained 100% of the time. For example, a man is laid off from his job he had only 2 months, along with 10% of his co-workers. He believes he should always be the sole provider for his family, and if he isn’t he is failing the family and himself. As a result he is anxious, angry, and depressed.


Notice how these thinking errors affect your thinking about the holidays.

·        “I simply must attend every party I’m invited to!” What does it say about me if I don’t go, and is it possible that my answer to that question is also emotional reasoning or a ‘should’ statement?

·        “I feel embarrassed and lazy if I don’t handcraft every single gift.” Do I reallyfeel like others will judge me harshly if I don’t? And even if they did, could I tolerate it?

·        “My children must have every single thing they asked Santa for.” What would happen if they didn’t? Would they truly feel unloved, or slighted by Santa? Can I find a way to tolerate this?

·        “My extended family should never have tension over an entire week in a cabin together. What is wrong with them?” Is it realistic to think there will be zero conflict while confined with people I only see every other year? When we think thoughts such as “there should never be conflict” we feel inadequate and failing. Then, we naturally engage in emotional reasoning.



Noticing and articulating distorted thoughts about the holidays helps us clarify our preferences and values. Giving yourself more realistic and positive thoughts, such as, “While my family likes it when I bake 5 different pies, they will be content with 2, and we’ll get more time to play Scrabble together,” will foster a less stressful, and therefore, enjoyable holiday season.