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Guest Contributor, Health & Wellness

A Happy—and Stressful—Holiday Season

By: Stephen Jarrell, LCSW, LCAC, ACSWExecutive Director and CEO of Headwaters Counseling

Amongst the joy and celebration of the holidays, we also often encounter stress and depression. Let’s recognize this and take action to protect our well-being.

This blog addresses stress and not depression, which is often a result of stress. If you are experiencing overt depression or your depression becomes crippling, call your medical provider. Get a physical, receive medication, if need be, and see a therapist. It literally can save your life.

Have you ever watched a holiday movie where everything is just absolutely wonderful? Sometimes there is a crisis, but it’s neatly resolved in 1 hour and 46 minutes. White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, The Grinch, and the list goes on. Some of our holidays are more like Krampus, Bad Santa 1 and 2, and even Gremlins. But even those movies end with a happy ending, well, sort of. Let’s face it, they are all movies. They are not real and our holiday and lives are real, sometimes surreal, and likely would make lousy movies.

The holidays often bring:

  • Additional demands, such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, entertaining,
  • Uninvited and often unwelcome guests,
  • Estranged family members,
  • Additional financial costs, and
  • No time for us to do it all.

Even with all these demands and concern, there is some hope to manage and survive the season.

Dealing with Holiday Stress 101

Stress is the difference between what we perceive will happen and what actually happens. The “gap” causes stress and how we decide to address it is the answer. Stress is a normal, healthy reaction and allows us to fail or move forward in life. The fun part is, we get to choose.

In case you haven’t heard, sometimes stress is good! Good stress is short-term and it can be a great motivator, inspiring us and focusing our energy to enhance performance and get a lot of things accomplished. Bad stress, however, is the kind that wears us out, leaves us jittery, and is harmful to our health. Bad stress, or distress, can be very debilitating, causing folks to simply shut down or lead to anxiety, confusion, poor concentration, and decreased performance. I don’t think it is possible to completely avoid stress and life would be a bit boring without it.

Saying that we should avoid stress may be like if I said “do not think of the color blue!” Then, the whole world would become a Smurf!

The feeling of losing control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of well-being. The act of taking control is in itself empowering, and it's a crucial part of finding a solution that satisfies us and not someone else. Control is often an illusion to most of us, but if we think we are being proactive, then we believe that we are leveraging some control.

Don't let the holidays become something to dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the not-so-productive stress that can descend during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With some planning and positive thinking, you can find peace, joy, and even serenity during the holidays.

Here’s a few things to consider to take control this holiday season:

Recognize your feelings 

If someone close to you has become gravely ill, recently passed away, or you can't be with loved ones for whatever reason, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. We can't force ourselves to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

Connect with others

If you are feeling stressed during the holidays, it also may help to talk to a friend or family member about your concerns. Try reaching out with a text, call, or video chat. Avoid making an unannounced visit, though, as to not add to the stress of others.

The activities we do with friends can help us relax and relieve stress and talking things through with a friend may also help find solutions to our problems.

Volunteering time or doing something to help others is also a good way to lift spirits and broaden friendships. For example, consider dropping off a meal or dessert at a friend's home during the holidays. Evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, often become more resilient.

If you don't have time to volunteer, try to do someone a favor every day. It can be something as small as helping someone cross the road or going on a coffee run for colleagues.

Be realistic

The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. Maybe last year was horrible.  As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if an adult child or other relatives can't come to your home, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, or videos.

A positive from the pandemic was many of us grew in our capabilities to find new ways to connect virtually or make a video call. Even though our holiday plans may look different, we can find ways to celebrate. Be realistic and creative.

Set aside differences

Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. There is an excellent chance that you may not be living up to their expectations, either. We all know that people can be unrealistic, ourselves included. 

Set aside differences until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something doesn’t go as planned. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

Stick to a budget

Before you do your gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to the budget. Don't try to buy happiness with a plethora of gifts.

Try these alternatives:

  • Donate to a charity in someone's name
  • Give homemade gifts
  • Start a family gift exchange
  • Give the gift of time—get together and simply enjoy each other’s company

Plan ahead 

  • Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, connecting with friends, and other activities.
  • Consider whether you can shop online for any items.
  • Plan menus and then make a shopping list. This will help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients.
  • And make sure to line up help for meal prep and cleanup.

Learn to say no

Saying yes when we should say no can leave a feeling of resentment and being overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

Don't abandon healthy habits

Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to our stress and guilt.

Try these suggestions:

  • Take a walk at night, stargazing
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Read a book
  • Eat healthy meals
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Include regular physical activity in your daily routine
  • Try deep-breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga
  • Don't rely on alcohol, drugs, smoking, and caffeine as ways of coping
  • Be aware of how the information culture can produce undue stress, and adjust the time you spend reading/watching news and social media

Possible Solutions

This is where I should give everyone a suggestion to write things down that you are thankful for or even do some journaling. If that is something you enjoy, go for it! If this would be just one more thing to do and the thought increases your anxiety, then toss that idea out and forget I even suggested it!

Paying more attention to the present moment can, and will, improve our mental well-being. This includes our thoughts and feelings, our body, and the world around us.

Some people call this awareness "mindfulness." Mindfulness can help us enjoy life more and understand ourselves better. It can positively change the way we feel about life and how we approach challenges. And yes, mindfulness even works in the off-season.

Last but not least

Ultimately, if these suggestions don’t work, or other ideas you find in other blogs, social media, or the evening news are also not effective, you may consider counseling or therapy.

This is not to say that you are somehow deficient or incapable in any way, but a boost from a third party or unbiased person, may be just the thing you need. Simply talking with someone to help sort things out, and to help you cope and navigate life with a little more ease.


Stephen Jarrell LCSW, LCAC, ACSW, is the Executive Director/CEO of Headwaters Counseling in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Visit to learn more.