It’s not just in your head. I mean, it is in your head. But it’s real.

Holiday stress. It’s a thing.

Depending on the study you read, up to 88%  of Americans say they experience significantly increased stress levels during the Christmas holiday season. Over 30% say they don’t even enjoy the holidays before, due to all the obligations, pressure, and responsibilities of the most wonderful time of the year. It’s hard to align all the happy markers of the season, the music, the lights, the gatherings, the celebrations, with the pounding drain that is anxiety and stress. 

But even though the ideal around the holidays is supposed to be a time to stop, to reflect, and to focus on the things that matter most to us, it’s also turned into a high-octane social, shopping, and sky-high expectations kind of experience as well. Somehow, we’re trying to make the holy work with the hustle and the merry work with the materialistic. Which is a potent recipe for stress soup.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. There can be a lot of pressure at this time of year to mask emotions that seem out of style with all the merry-making. But the holidays can be a complex time when it comes to your feelings. Melancholy for the way things used to be. Loneliness when family and friend circumstances have changed. Grief from losses of the past year. It can be a confusing mix of joy, elation, and reunion, coupled with other powerful emotions that don’t seem to pair well. So give yourself permission to feel the range of emotions that come your way.
  2. It’s okay to cancel. I get it. Once I’ve told someone I’ll come to their gathering or I’ve bought tickets for the exhibit or performance, I feel solidly obligated to go. But particularly during the heightened holiday season, you may have a day where you feel completely run-down or overwhelmed. And when that hits, sometimes the most honest thing you can do is stop. Sure, the best approach is to keep your calendar a little more cleared from the get-go. But let’s be real; sometimes we’ve painted ourselves into a calendar corner and don’t know how to get out. Don’t go to the next thing on the calendar. Don’t push yourself too far. Yes, you might disappoint some people. But those who know and love you and want the best for you will completely understand if you need to reach out and say, “Hey, I’m so sorry. I know I told you I would be able to attend, but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed by what needs to get accomplished in the next few days. I’ll have to miss this year, but please know how much I care about you.”
  3. Limit difficult family dynamics. It’s a key area of stress people report when it comes to the holidays, dealing with family members who are a challenge. And with the hot topics of politics and the pandemic, those cozy family events can feel more like a debate competition throw-down. Do the pre-work prior to possible contentious family events about what you will discuss and what you won’t. Work out an escape plan with your spouse. Determine ahead of time what time you will leave in the evening. Give yourself some safe borders within possible difficult family gatherings will allow you attend with a stronger sense of what you will participate in and what you won’t.
  4. Embrace the power of numbers. Sure, budget is probably on your mind a lot as you approach your gift-giving and shopping for the season. But consider this number as well: what’s the total number of gifts you want to give to the people in your life? Shopping for one or two gifts per person or kiddo in your family is a whole lot simpler that spending up to a certain dollar amount. Far too often, in trying to make the Christmas morning experience seem big and bold and full, I’ve purchased unneeded gifts. And surplus, extra gifts ultimately become something known as clutter. Take some of the pressure off yourself and commit to a simpler gift strategy by embracing a reasonable number of gifts to shop for, rather than continuing to buy until you hit a certain dollar amount.
  5. Build in days with no agenda. I was visiting with a business colleague at a recent gathering, and she told me that her family’s calendar of events was full every single day until the 6th of January. More often than not, that’s how my calendar has looked as well. And I bet you could say the same thing. With all that needs to be done and with all the sight to see and places to go, what is supposed to be a time to focus on family can quickly become running to the next thing and then the next. If you and yours thrive at that kind of pace, great. Enjoy all the increase in social and performance activities. But if you’re finding yourself exhausted even looking at what’s coming up in the next few weeks, honor yourself. Honor your energy levels and how you recharge. For me, having days that are intentionally cleared of mandated activities are a critical component to my mental health. It’s not that I don’t go and do and experience on some of those days; I do. But knowing that I don’t have to is a big deal in my mental and emotional energy management. 
  6. You’re the boss of you. I’m still working on this one. Far too often I’ve allowed obligation and guilt and expectations to run wild with my holidays and I stumble into January, more exhausted than when the holidays began. And here’s the deal; I was doing it to myself on several fronts. My desire to churn out perfectly curated experiences for my kids, my demands on myself to bake all the things for all the neighbors, my self-imposed Christmas card mailing deadlines, all those things were within the pale of my control. Sure, there have been plenty of times through the years where my work and speaking schedule kept me working through Christmas Eve. There were times that coordinating with extended family to see each other meant tht I was going to have to endure a bit more stress to make it happen. But on those things that I could and I can control, I’m continuing to learn that I have the say on those things. I’d love for my kids to remember me as the Queen of Christmas. But more important is that they remember a mom who was present, happy, vital, rested, and engaged, not the sleep-deprived, slightly frustrated with a splash of martyrdom mother who stayed up until the wee hours tying the perfect layered bows on the packages. Be the boss of you. Manage what you will and won’t do, and what you want and what you don’t want to do. 

Most importantly, don’t let the pressure of the season hijack the sweetness of the season. It can be all too easy to be swept along in the activity and heightened emotion of the holidays, rather than being thoughtful and intentional in what you want your celebration to look like. Assess what has worked well in the past and what hasn’t and plan from there. You’re wanting to make Christmas merry for all those around you; don’t forget that you can give yourself a Merry Christmas as well. 

Julie Lyles Carr is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur living in Austin, Texas, with her husband Mike Carr. They have eight kids, two unfriendly cats, and an antique dachshund.