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  • Melanie Lopes, MFT

12 Tips for Handling Pandemic Holiday Stress

pandemic holiday

This post is a revamp of last year’s post about holiday stress tips with some adjustments for how to navigate the holidays and take care of yourself in light of the pandemic. Below you’ll find 12 tips to help you cope with holiday stress and help you bring some joy and satisfaction into your holiday season as well.

Are you feeling anxious or upset about the upcoming holidays?

You’re not alone. This time of year comes with a lot of expectations and this year in particular has a unique set of challenges with the various restrictions and stay at home orders that may be keeping you apart from family or causing tension within your family. Or maybe you’ve got some unforeseen financial constraints that have you worried about being able to provide the kind of holiday festivities and gifts that you’d like to provide for your family.

Whatever the case may be, your holiday plans will probably look a bit different this year and you may be feeling frustrated and fed up with the pandemic and social distancing safety protocols, and tired of feeling anxious about all of the change and uncertainty.

Whether you are hunkering down at home with your immediate family or planning a gathering through a video or conference call, if you’re looking for ways to cope with holiday stress, it all starts with paying attention to your needs and coming up with a plan for before, during, and after any stressful events:

  • Doing something enjoyable or soothing right before an event, or first thing in the morning before you start your day, puts you in a better head space and allows you to relax, rather than going into the day or the event already stressed, which only makes it worse.

  • Taking the time to calm yourself or unwind during the event or throughout the day prevents stress and tension from building up to unbearable levels.

  • And remembering to do something for yourself after the event or at the end of the day allows you to shake off any stress and move forward in a positive direction.

Here are some ideas to consider:

holiday self care

1. Treat yourself to something you enjoy.

The season of giving is mostly focused on giving to others, which is a wonderful thing, but in the process it becomes easy to forget to take care of yourself. Take the time to do something enjoyable or soothing - listen to or play your favorite music, cook, buy your favorite dessert, get yourself a gift, go for a walk, enjoy a nice meal, go see some holiday lights, take a bath, watch your favorite movie, etc. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or costly, it could be something simple as long as you're putting in the time and effort to do something for YOU.

2. Take a time out.

If you start to notice tension and anxiety rising, take a time out and give yourself a break - get some fresh air, take some deep breaths, step into another room for a few minutes, or find a way to spend a little time alone to regroup.

3. Write it down.

Take some time to write out your thoughts and feelings. This can help you get some clarity and it also helps with releasing some of the tension so that it doesn’t build up and come bursting out.

4. Practice being present and noticing the details.

Slow down and focus in on all the details of your environment and take a mental inventory of all that you are observing. This is helpful especially when your head is spinning with lots of thoughts or when you feel overwhelmed. It helps ground you and refocus your mind.

**If possible, focus in on the things you enjoy or appreciate (even the tiniest things like the flicker of a candle or a smile on a child’s face) and really let yourself take it in. When you take in the good in this way it helps generate positive feelings which can be soothing and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.


5. Practice gratitude.

Taking note of the things that you are grateful for is a good way to shift your focus away from the negative. It can help bring some much-needed perspective and balance so you don’t head into a downward spiral of negativity, which only leads to more discomfort and frustration.

6. Speak up and set clear boundaries.

Some holiday stress can come in the form of dread – dreading an interaction, an uncomfortable conversation, a family dynamic, or dreading having to deal with the expectation that you’ll be in a vibrant and cheerful mood, when you’re not really feeling it.

Oftentimes this feeling of dread is present because you feel like there’s nothing you can do about the situation – you’re just going to have to be miserable. But one thing you can do to find relief is to listen to your needs and limits, and communicate them clearly.

This might mean telling your family that you don’t feel comfortable gathering unless they’re willing to follow social distancing/mask protocols. Or letting someone know that you don’t want to talk about politics. Or acknowledging that you’re having a hard time and asking for some understanding and compassion. Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get the response you desire, but your chances are far greater than if you were to say nothing at all.

7. Strategize with your partner or other friends or family members.

If you’re planning on gathering with others in some shape or form, perhaps you can come up with a team plan for how to navigate the potential difficult moments. You can talk with your partner, or other people who will be in attendance, about how to move on from difficult conversations or maybe you even come up with an exit strategy – a cue for knowing when it’s time to leave or a predetermined amount of time you will spend on a call. It helps to have a team on the same page!


8. Get creative.

It can be easy to focus on what’s missing or what’s lacking this holiday season, but another way to look at things is to see these circumstances as an opportunity to get creative - create a new tradition or try a new way of getting into the holiday spirit.

There are a ton of ideas floating around out there on the internet if you need some inspiration, but here’s a few examples – learn how to cook a new dish for your holiday meal, host a virtual happy hour, play a game virtually, get crafty and do a creative project together, write letters, send a care package, create a new tradition of giving to others – donate, volunteer to make phone calls to those who are homebound, etc.

9. Laugh or do something playful.

This can help relieve some tension and move you into a more joyful state so you’re not taking everything so seriously. Play a game, make a silly video, play with a child, sing out loud, watch a funny movie, jump in a leaf pile, or play in the snow.

10. Move your body.

Get some exercise or simply go for a walk. Movement is a great stress reliever and a good excuse to step away for a bit. It's particularly helpful for relieving some of the symptoms of anxiety like muscle tension and restlessness.

11. Coach yourself through it.

Give yourself a pep talk when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or upset and see if there is a different way to view the situation that’s both realistic and supportive. This doesn't mean that you need to paint a rosy picture and be in denial about how you’re feeling or what’s happening, but if you go into the holiday thinking it will be bad, it probably will be.

Rather than thinking: “This is going to be awful, I can’t wait until it’s over.” Try telling yourself something like: “This is probably going to be uncomfortable and I’ll get through it or I’m going to make the most of it.” This allows you to acknowledge and accept the challenge that lies ahead and gives you a chance to comfort yourself with the reminder that you’ll make it through.

12. Get support.

Sometimes you need a little extra help to support your through the challenges that come with the holidays, and that’s ok. Talk it over with someone you trust or seek professional help.


The holiday season is a time rich with meaning, and even when the circumstances are not ideal there are still opportunities to have a meaningful and festive time because ultimately, it’s all in how you choose to view the situation and what meaning you choose to give it. So why not try to make the most of it while focusing on ways to keep your stress levels low?

Whether you try one or all of these ideas, taking the time to try something different and take care of yourself is worth it. You might not be able to create a completely stress-free holiday season but making the effort to better manage your stress sets a good tone and gets you started on a path toward change as you head into the new year.

Best wishes and happy holidays!

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