Proactive tips for coping with holiday stress

December 12, 2022 Swedish Behavioral Health Team


In this article:

  • With busier schedules and longer to-do lists, it’s normal to experience increased feelings of stress, anxiety and depression during the holidays. 

  • The first step in managing holiday stress is to identify stressful triggers before they hit — and to develop a set of relaxation techniques you can use when you start to feel overwhelmed.

  • Setting boundaries is key to managing holiday stress and when you feel like you are being put on the spot, you can always tell someone you’ll get back to them and confirm plans later.  

Maybe you are invigorated by winter weather and the holidays that usher it in. Or maybe you are someone who dreads the shorter days of December. Whether you love or loathe this time of year, there’s no question that the holidays come with a unique set of challenges, including busy calendars, lengthy to-do lists and bittersweet memories of loved ones who have passed. Even the happiest holiday revelers can find themselves experiencing moments of overwhelm and fatigue.

The winter holiday season generally centers on joy. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of the year. So how can you help yourself focus on all the good things about the holidays and minimize negative holiday stress?

To find out how to manage stress and anxiety during the holiday season, we spoke with Angie Christiansen, MSW, LCSW, a provider with Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing, about strategies to help you feel happy and healthy this holiday season.

Identify your stressful triggers before they hit

“Stress triggers overindulgence, and if you struggle with overindulging during the holiday season, your feelings of depression and anxiety may increase,” says Angie.

She suggests identifying and naming your triggers. This can strengthen your ability to cope with stressful situations and help you avoid unhealthy behaviors that undermine your mental health.

  • Think about what situations prompt uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Write them down and describe them.  
  • Identify the coping skills you want to use in each situation. This might include prioritizing sleep, nutrition and exercise, meditation, deep breathing, spending time outside, checking the facts of the situation, and talking to a professional or someone you trust.
  • Imagine the stressful situation in your head with as much detail as possible.  
  • Rehearse in your mind how you will manage each situation. Rehearse your thoughts, actions and what you will say.  
  • After rehearsing, use a relaxation strategy.

Practice relaxation strategies to use in the moment

Depression and anxiety have the potential to sideswipe you, which is why feeling overwhelmed can seem to happen so suddenly. Angie recommends sticking to your regular, everyday routine as much as possible throughout the holidays. This will help you maintain consistency and that can help you feel in control. Then develop a toolkit of relaxation strategies you can use when stress starts to mount.  

Try deep breathing techniques

When things get stressful, it is common to hold your breath or only breathe as deep as your rib cage. And when you aren’t getting full breaths, all the available oxygen goes to your brain while the rest of your body doesn’t get enough. This can significantly affect your mental health and the way you experience emotions in your body, which can lead to issues like tight muscles, pain and stomach problems.

Deep breathing will quickly increase the levels of oxygen in your body. You can practice deep breathing by placing a hand on your chest and abdomen and breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth as if you are blowing through a straw. The goal is to feel your abdomen gently move up and down.

Change your body temperature

Lowering your body temperature will reduce your heart rate and reduce your feeling of being overwhelmed. If you are experiencing a moment of overwhelm, you can lower your heart rate by:  

  • Putting your face in a bowl of icy water for 30 seconds
  • Pressing ice packs to your face, the back of your neck and your chest 
  • Holding a glass filled with a cold drink in your hand

For days when you are traveling or on-the-go, try packing a frozen water bottle or instant ice packs with you.  

Raise your heart rate  

If you find yourself feeling unmotivated and down, or procrastinating because your holiday to-do list feels like it is just too much, some quick exercises to raise your heart rate can help you clear your mind and get back on task.

Try raising your heart rate as fast as possible for up to three or four minutes. You can do this wherever you are by:

  • Running in place  
  • Doing jumping jacks in place   
  • Jumping rope  

Temper Your Expectations and Set Boundaries

Whether you are looking ahead to the holiday season or are in the midst of it, take a moment to check the expectations you have for yourself. Are they reasonable and respectful of your time and energy?

Identify the events, people and celebrations that populate your holiday calendar. Which ones align with your values and the ways you want to spend your time during the season? Then prioritize which are most important.   

Once you are clear on who and what is most important to you during the holidays, you can proactively set boundaries. Ask yourself what invitations, favors and requests you are willing to accept and where you will need to draw the line. 

“When people invite you to do things or ask you for help, don’t feel like you need to respond immediately,” says Angie. “Practice saying, ‘I will get back to you’ and give yourself permission to take your time and make a decision that fits with your needs and schedule.”

Continue stress management strategies throughout the year

The stresses that we experience during the holidays aren’t that different than those that we encounter all year long. Busy schedules, tough deadlines and difficult people can pop up at any time. If you sharpen your stress management and selfcare skills throughout the year, you’ll get better and better at taking care of yourself with every holiday season that comes along.

Angie recommends using the PLEASE skill, a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) tool, to minimize your emotional vulnerability during times of stress and anxiety.

PL (treat physical illnesses): Prioritize extra rest when you aren’t feeling well. Go to the doctor when you are sick, and take medications as your provider prescribes.

(Balanced) Eating: Don’t eat too much or too little and eat mindfully.

Avoid mood-altering substances. Drink alcohol and caffeine in moderation and avoid illicit substances.  

Sleep: Get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night and keep a consistent sleep schedule.  

Exercise: move your body a little bit every day if you can. Even just once in a while is better than none at all.

“Start by choosing a couple to practice at a time,” says Angie. “Don’t overwhelm yourself.”  


Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about stress management and mental health, contact Swedish Behavioral Health and Wellbeing. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Care for the Body, Mind and Spirit

For Mental Health Awareness Week, a roundup of resources and information

Caring for BIPOC and minority mental health

What’s 988? What you need to know about the new national mental health crisis hotline


This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.


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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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