Every present is wrapped with a pretty bow. The lights are twinkling, snow is falling and everyone is peacefully getting along. Then you turn off the TV.
Outside the picture-perfect world of Hallmark movies, the holidays can be stressful, triggering and exhausting. For many people, this means increased anxiety during the most wonderful time of the year.
“The combination of high expectations, societal pressures and family stressors make anxiety around the holiday an incredibly common experience,” Charissa Chamorro, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told HuffPost. “In addition, the stress of meeting internal and external expectations is compounded by the increased tendency for social comparison. These factors lead many people to feel anxious at this time of year.”
While some things can obviously cause anxiety — like spending too much money or listening to Aunt Tammy’s politics over dinner — other behaviors could increase your anxiety without you even realizing it.
Keep reading for eight ways you may be unintentionally fueling your holiday-related anxiety this month, along with some expert tips for unwinding and staying present.
Wanting to be perfect.
“Many people feel anxious during the holidays because the media portrays them in an unrealistically cheerful light,” said Reina Lazarovich, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Compass CBT. Think: expensive gifts, finding love, and resolving all family problems in 90 minutes.
Women in particular can feel this pressure “due to cultural messages to be perfect in many roles, like daughter, partner and hostess.” she continued. “The message is that anything less than perfect is not good enough. Not only is this belief untrue, but it sets women up to put enormous pressure on themselves.”
Lazarovich suggested aiming for “good enough” instead of perfect this holiday season — and making time for self-care and self-compassion.
Alana Carvalho licensed mental health counselor, noted that “we often put a lot of pressure on the holidays to be perfect thinking that it’s the perfect gift, meal or moment that will make the holidays feel special.” But instead “we end up having more anxiety rather than enjoying the holidays.”
Although the holidays can be fun and special, it’s unlikely they will ever be totally perfect. She suggested turning your focus from perfection to connection.
“What makes it special is not the things we are more likely to stress over, but instead, the moments of connection and joy of being with loved ones,” Carvalho said.
Focusing on the outcome.
Sure, everyone is excited about Christmas, but it’s important to take some time to be present instead of just counting down the days to Dec. 25.
Joanna Hardis, a cognitive behavioral therapist and author, said that “focusing too much on the outcome” during the holidays can increase your anxiety. In this case, the outcome could be “making the perfect meal, finding the perfect gift, making sure everyone is having a great time, hoping and wishing you’ll get something.”
“Most of the time, we can’t control outcomes, and when we try, we put way too much pressure on ourselves and others, and it backfires,” she said.
The solution may feel a little counterintuitive. Don’t think, “I’m not going to get anxious this year,” which in itself is focusing too much on the outcome, according to Hardis. Instead, think about the process and “responding differently to the anxiety.” For example, if you start to get anxious about making an amazing meal, instead of spending hours researching recipes, decide to pick the first one that sounds good and move on.
Decide on coping mechanisms in advance, so you’ll be prepared when anxiety inevitably comes. “Since we cannot control how we feel and anxiety is a feeling, the goal would be to respond more effectively if/when we notice we’re feeling anxious, which is bound to happen,” Hardis said.
Spending too much time on social media.
Seeing holiday decorations on TikTok and the cool places your friends are traveling to on Instagram can be stressful. Chamorro said that comparing yourself to others “can lead to feelings of inadequacy and anxiety as people may fear that they are not living up to their potential or the expectations of other people.”
“The tendency for social comparison is amplified at this time of year through the use of social media,” she said, adding that the “ideal images” on social media can make you feel like “you should also be living your best life during the holidays.” And that’s not a realistic goal.
Combat this by practicing mindfulness next time you’re on your phone. “Make it a practice to notice when you start to compare yourself to others and use these two simple strategies to reduce the impact of this tendency: label it and release it,” Chamorro said. “By labeling it ‘comparing’, you bring it into your awareness, then you can choose to release it and move on.”
Trying to please everyone.
Our people-pleasing tendencies tend to come out during the most wonderful time of the year.
“Our brains always try to please others subconsciously,” said Friederike Fabritius, a neuroscientist and author. “We are wired to be social. We always try to put other people first and make them happy. We invite guests we actually don’t want to see. We meet people we don’t want to meet. We allow people to impose their schedules on us and that creates massive stress and anxiety.”
Although it might feel weird, Fabritius suggested putting yourself first. “Self-compassion is key,” she said. Also, being kind to yourself can mean avoiding people who cause you anxiety. “There is no law that says you have to celebrate with them if they don’t treat you right,” she added.
“It’s important to create a sense of autonomy. Don’t let other people impose their schedules on you,” Fabritius continued. “If we feel in charge, if we feel that we can make our own decisions, that’s a huge anti-stress booster.”
Not setting healthy boundaries.
Jennifer Wegmann, a health and wellness studies lecturer at Binghamton University, encouraged people to set boundaries during the holiday season.
“If you find yourself saying yes to everything — party, dinners, presents — you can burn yourself out,” she said. “On the flip side, if you find yourself saying no to everything during the holidays, you will miss out on making healthy connections, and relationships may suffer.”
So what do you do? Figure out what your personal boundaries are, and “communicate them assertively and directly,” according to Wegmann.
“Remember, you can be assertive without forgoing compassion and kindness,” she explained.
Expecting everyone to get along.
Families are complicated, and the holidays aren’t a magical cure to make everyone like each other. Lazarovich said that expecting our own family gathering to be like a Christmas movie is setting us up for disappointment.
“In reality, family dynamics are usually complicated and not fully under our control,” she said. “When we take it upon ourselves to make everyone happy and cheerful, it only adds to our frustration.”
She suggested practicing setting boundaries with family members ahead of time to make it easier to assert yourself in the moment. And, again, work on accepting things out of your control “such as how other people will feel and act.”
Rachael Turner, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Turning Point Counseling, also said that “while the notion of familial reunion carries a sense of warmth, the reality may be starkly different. Unhealthy family dynamics, resurfacing past traumas, and the recognition of an unsustainable or toxic environment all contribute to stress.”
Be proactive in taking care of yourself by “emphasizing self-care rituals, developing personal coping strategies, and fostering open communication.” This is also something a therapist can help you with.
Losing your routine.
It’s nice to get a break from the daily grind, but taking a break from your routine during the holidays can actually increase anxiety, too.
“The holidays can be a time when your sense of routine is lost,” said Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, a psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at the Jed Foundation. “You may have time off work or school, and don’t have a clear schedule you have to follow. You might be traveling and not have access to the things you normally do, like your usual foods, the gym you go to or the friends you spend time with.”
To combat this, Erickson-Schroth recommended trying to keep some sort of routine during this chaotic time of year. “That doesn’t mean you need to do all the things you do the rest of the year, but find a couple of things that feel good for you to do every day,” she said, adding, “Get enough sleep, eat foods that make you feel good, and move your body in a way that you enjoy – maybe taking a walk, dancing or going for a run.”
Getting lost in the obligations of the season.
“Prioritize your own joy and peace,” Carvalho said. If finances are tight, suggest a Secret Santa instead of buying everyone gifts, or put a limit on how much time you will spend around family.
“Find ways to make decisions in your best interest rather than feeling like you are at the mercy of what works best for those around you,” she said.
By being more intentional with our thoughts and actions, we can stay calm and enjoy a less anxious holiday season.