When the festive season feels more overwhelming than it does joyful, your holiday stress level could be at its max. But practicing self-care and delegating responsibilities may help you cope.

Stress isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s anything that presents a challenge to your body’s systems, physically, mentally — or both. It can help you excel, achieve goals, and feel motivated.

It can also stick around too long, which may make you feel anxious and overwhelmed.

Holiday stress can be what helps you stay on track for that big meal you have planned, or it can be what brings you to tears after a long day of battling shopping crowds.

The good news is holiday stress doesn’t have to be your constant companion this festive season.

1. Setting boundaries

Setting personal boundaries can help you avoid burnout and express your wants and needs effectively.

Setting personal boundaries can help you avoid burnout and express your wants and needs effectively.

“Boundaries can look like setting a financial limit on gift giving,” says Jewel Weah, a licensed professional counselor from Kerrville, Texas. “Identify what topics are off limits for you. If you are traveling to see family, boundaries can look like deciding where you will stay and with whom.”

2. Applying self-care

Self-care is the practice of being kind to yourself, showing self-compassion, and allowing time for your wants and needs.

It’s been shown in 2019 research to have multiple psychological benefits across diverse populations.

Tina Baxter, an advanced practice registered nurse from Anderson, Indiana, says, “Take care of you. Take the holiday scents such as cinnamon, pumpkin spice, whatever you like, and use it as a bath bomb or diffuse it as essential oils. […] Most of all, don’t compare your celebration with someone else’s. Do you.”

3. Pre-planning

Baxter also suggests focusing on pre-planning and preparation whenever possible.

“If your favorite recipe calls for condensed milk, waiting until Christmas Eve to get it might cause some additional stress as your local market may be out.”

4. Planning quiet time

In the midst of all your planning, scheduling some quiet time may be helpful.

A 2006 study found 2 minutes of silence positively impacted blood pressure and circulation, lowering stress levels more effectively than listening to relaxing music.

With how busy the holidays are, however, if you don’t put that quiet time in your planner, you may never get around to focusing on the experience.

5. Strategize shopping

Baxter recommends strategizing shopping experiences to help avoid confrontations or crowded, stressful store scenes.

She says to ask yourself questions like:

  • Is it easier to shop in the evening after the kids are in bed and your partner can watch them?
  • Is it better for you to shop early in the morning before the crowds come in?
  • Is the item easy to order online, in plenty of time to get here before the holidays?

6. Keeping your regular routines

There’s a reason why you find comfort in habits and routines. According to Mental Health America (MHA), routines help improve mental and physical well-being and can aid in overall resiliency.

“Continue to practice your morning routine as much as possible if that is something that grounds you,” says Carrie Cohen, a licensed clinical social worker from Tampa Bay, Florida. “When we get busy, we give up our routines. Routines help to hold us in place and keep us grounded.”

7. Try to avoid family confrontations

It may be tempting to finally let your uncle know how you feel about his political views, but the holidays might not be the best time for hot-button topics.

Dr. Jenn Hardy, a licensed psychologist from Maryville, Tennessee, says this can be a form of personal boundary adherence. “It’s OK to save that for another day,” she says. “Consider maintaining a boundary of not discussing hot-button issues during your holiday gatherings. Come prepared with phrases you can use to name your boundary.”

8. Forgetting about the “Pinterest experience”

Putting expectations on yourself about having a picture-perfect holiday event can add to the stress already surrounding such gatherings.

It’s OK if your table setting isn’t Pinterest-pristine. “Your kid’s crafts don’t need to be as creative and stylized as your favorite Pinterest pins,” says Hardy. “What you give up in the spirit of imperfection, you gain back in moments of ease and calm.”

9. Sharing the responsibility

Feeling as though too much is on your holiday to-do list? It’s absolutely okay to delegate responsibility or ask for help.

It’s also okay to lean more into professional support systems.

“It’s good to get extra time with your therapist, support group, or other healer so that you have a dedicated space to put your feelings into,” Cohen says. “[Feelings] are more likely to be contained this way, as opposed to spilling out when you don’t want them to.”

What causes holiday stress may be different for everyone, but common factors, according to the 2021 Holiday Stress report from the American Psychiatric Association (APA), include:

  • gift affordability
  • family dynamics/social interactions
  • loneliness
  • unrealistic expectations
  • too much pressure/responsibility
  • a sense of loss
  • presence of mental health conditions
  • fonder memories of past holidays

Holiday stress is no different than other unhelpful forms of stress — it’s just specific to the holiday season.

Symptoms that indicate stress may be problematic include:

  • forgetfulness
  • erratic emotions
  • jaw clenching
  • headaches
  • increase in infections/sickness
  • irritability
  • indifference toward past interests
  • stomach pains
  • defensiveness
  • difficulty breathing
  • low self-esteem
  • fatigue
  • weight changes
  • decreased libido
  • instant-gratification seeking
  • sleep disturbance
  • cognitive impairment
  • muscle aches

Scheduling in self-care, preparing as much as you can ahead of time, and setting boundaries can help you cope with holiday stress.

If you’re feeling too much pressure this time of year, spending extra time with your mental health professional or support network may help you cope.

If you’re currently seeking support, consider visiting Psych Central’s directory to find an online therapist or a mental health professional near you.