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How to Handle Holiday Stress with Compassion

Do you worry about staying cheerful during the holidays? Do festivities spark more worries than warm feelings?

Of course you want to have a light heart and free spirit. But many people become super stressed during the holiday season, regardless of their hopes to stay positive. If you become wound up as the holidays approach, you are not alone. Many people struggle with feelings like loneliness, loss or anxiety.

Negative thinking tends to feed on itself. That’s why self-care is more important now than ever. Take time to plan ahead before you feel overwhelmed. What new comforts could help you enjoy the holidays differently?

Here are some ideas for healthy self-care if you’re stressed about celebrations.

Reframe Expectations

The holidays are stressful for almost everyone. It’s a chaotic time for most people, no matter how cheerful they look. There is more traffic on the road, bigger crowds everywhere, and more commitments on your schedule. These pressures can make people flustered or annoyed much faster.

We’re bombarded with ideal images of laughing people and beautiful scenes. We see happy couples, perfect moments, lavish gifts, and dazzling decor. It may feel like everyone else is joyful, and on top of their to-do list. By comparison, it might seem like important parts of our lives are missing or inadequate.

All anyone has is the present moment. Look for something positive to savor, even if it’s small. What situations might give you something good to notice? You might brainstorm activities that are special just for you, such as:

  • Volunteering at an organization for those in need
  • Helping out at an animal shelter
  • Seeing a friend for coffee
  • Taking time to call someone you care about
  • Seeing an art exhibit, free concert or holiday display
  • Doing something nice for yourself – like having your hair done or getting a massage, or taking a walk
  • Finally reading that book you haven’t had time to pick up

Being kind to yourself is important. It helps disrupt negative thinking. Good self-care means listening to your thoughts and feelings to discover what you need.

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Tips for Managing Loneliness

Do you feel sad or lonely? Show compassion to your emotions, so you can understand and soothe them. If you are missing someone or something special in your life, feeling sad — even deeply — is normal.  You can feel sad without being consumed with sadness.

Recognize the pain you are going through. Give yourself some time to feel whatever you feel. Then actively give yourself permission to do more self-care over the next six weeks.

Take time to consider why you feel as you do. Sadness usually has a reasonable cause. For example, you may feel disappointed about work, or about a relationship that is not going well.

Self-care for sadness can include holding disappointment kindly until it passes, sharing your feelings with a trusted friend, or getting support from therapy to help you make sense of what’s happening.

You may need to manage feelings about relationships. An important relationship may not be how you want it to be.

Yet, you need not be ashamed if a relationship is suffering.

Our culture is quick to shame and blame those who don’t have their ‘act together.’ All relationships have rough spots. Some run their course sooner than expected. That is why good self-care is important especially now. It helps guide self-talk toward accepting yourself as you are. A moment of self-compassion helps you avoid unhealthy habits such as beating up on yourself or becoming isolated when you feel down.

How to Ease Holiday Loneliness with Self-Compassion

How do you hold pain with compassion, rather than get stuck in it?

  • Spend time thinking through your feelings. Talk yourself through what has happened and why you might reasonably feel the way you do: “This has been a rough year. I can understand where this feeling comes from. I am going through a really hard time.”
  • Give yourself the same compassion you would offer a friend. You might say to yourself, for example: “If I don’t want to go to all of these activities that’s okay. I’ll just choose one.” For a relationship that isn’t as good as you want it to be, you can have a truce. “If things aren’t perfect between us today, it’s alright for now; I accept us the way we are.” (Your personal safety always comes first. You need no one’s permission to opt out of plans where you do not feel physically or emotionally safe.)
  • Allow sad feelings to exist alongside moments of fun. We may experience different feelings at the same time. It is possible to feel sad, and enjoy people and events anyway. Sadness is an important part of dealing with loss or disappointment. But grief does not have to wipe out the chance to have fun – in fact you can still be sad about one thing, and have fun doing something else without letting sadness stop you.

It is normal, when you are sad, to feel like curling up on the couch for a day. But if you’re curling up for two months, that’s a sign that something important needs attention, and that it’s time to ask for help.

When to Get Help to Handle Holiday Stress

It is important to know the difference between sadness and depression, because you will need to respond differently to each one. Sadness allows you to function. You can feel sad and still show up for your favorite charity or see a friend for coffee. But if you stay locked in your house and you’re not seeing anyone, it may be time to address this with a skilled therapist.

Sadness will likely heal by itself in time. Depression may not lift on its own. Getting a careful diagnosis and support in therapy is likely to be very important to long-term change for the better.

Remember that everyone experiences stress in their own way, and putting their best foot forward as well as they can. Judging how you feel inside by how others look outside is not a fair comparison.

There is no perfect family or perfect holiday gathering – and they don’t need to be perfect for you to enjoy yourself. By actively choosing something fun for yourself, you can create your own rituals or habits to look forward to year after year.


Young, K. (2009, November 28). An adult child abuse survivor’s guide to the holidays [blog post]. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic staff. (2017, September 16). Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow.

How to Handle Holiday Stress with Compassion

Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT

Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT, is the founder and director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she established in 1999. Her insights for parent and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post, and Washington Parent magazine, and she presents educational workshops for clinicians on the treatment of adolescent substance abuse and trauma. Her counseling and psychoeducational services provide treatment for recovery from trauma and/or abuse, including dissociation; addictions; adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) issues; body image issues and eating disorders; self-harming behaviors, including emotional intensity and instability; anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; challenged family systems; chronic illness; co-dependency; dysfunctional relationships; life transitions; loss and bereavement; relationship distress; self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; and stress reduction. She is a trained trauma and addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

APA Reference
Brickel, R. (2018). How to Handle Holiday Stress with Compassion. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Dec 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 Dec 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.