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How to manage holiday stress this year

Expert tips for practicing self-care this season

The holiday season can be as stressful as it is rewarding — and this year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is requiring most of us to completely rethink our holiday plans. If you are a parent, you might feel the extra pressure of trying to create the perfect holiday for your family — especially if you’re looking at the holiday season as a way to make up for an imperfect year. That being said, it’s no surprise that managing holiday stress might be even harder this year.

Meredith Prescott, a NYC-based psychotherapist specializing in young adults and couples, suggests reframing your outlook. “Your role as a parent isn’t to fix everything around the holidays,” says Prescott. “Your role is to be a supportive person and listen to your child.”

Of course, the best way to give your family that kind of support and care starts by taking care of yourself — getting enough sleep, listening to what your body needs and using tools like meditation apps and workout apps to help you literally work through the stresses that the end of the year can bring.

How else can you take care of yourself and your family — including your extended family — during this unprecedented holiday season? We reached out to four mental health professionals to learn how you can support your family, practice self-care and keep your calm while managing stress during the Covid holiday season. Read on to learn some holiday stress tips.

In this article:

Set clear expectations

One of the best ways to manage holiday stress — both for yourself and your loved ones — is by setting clear expectations. The holidays are going to look different this year, and talking honestly about expectations can reduce some of the stress and uncertainty associated with not knowing what the 2020 holiday season might bring.

“Communicating clear expectations can be a huge relief for parents,” Prescott explains. She notes that children often do better when they know what to expect, whether that means Zooming with relatives on Christmas morning, swapping the annual ski trip for a staycation or preparing for a budget-friendly holiday that might include fewer gifts.

Same goes for the adults in your family — especially your extended family. If the grandparents are still hoping for an in-person holiday visit, for example, setting expectations as quickly as possible can give everyone time to process their disappointment and plan something new.

“Often, having these kinds of discussions with family members can help reduce stress levels,” says Paul Greene, a psychologist with expertise in anxiety and depression who serves as the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. If you don’t feel comfortable traveling to visit relatives this year, start those conversations now — and if you or your loved ones are considering making the trip, talk to your family members about how to mitigate the risks of holiday travel.

The sooner you communicate about what you need to feel comfortable this holiday season, the sooner you’ll start actually feeling comfortable.

Adapt holiday traditions

One of the toughest parts of the 2020 holiday season is figuring out what to do with your family’s holiday traditions. You might still be able to make your favorite holiday foods, for example, but will it feel the same if you aren’t able to enjoy them alongside your friends and relatives at the annual holiday party?

This year, the answer might involve flexibility and adaptation. Is it possible to drop off some holiday dishes on a loved one’s doorstep, or send a box of goodies through the mail? Would your extended family be interested in setting up a recipe swap, to allow everyone to cook the same dishes in their own kitchens and share the same meal online?

“If you’re skipping holiday family visits this year, try to mitigate that loss by making efforts to be in touch with the family you’re missing,” advises Greene. “Whether it’s by phone or video, find ways to connect even if you can’t be together. It won’t be the same, but it will help make the holidays more of the shared experience they are for most of us.”

This goes for all of your shared holiday experiences, not just the ones that involve The Big Day(s). If your kids usually participate in a holiday concert or pageant, ask them if they want to create their own show at home (and if they aren’t interested, don’t push it). If your family likes to spend the holiday break watching the latest Hollywood blockbusters, set aside a Sunday afternoon for some streaming media and gourmet popcorn. If you and your besties like to hunt for holiday deals together, ask them if they’d like to meet up on FaceTime or Zoom to shop the 2020 holiday sales online.

Check in with yourself — and your family

While working to set expectations and reframe traditions may help busy parents relieve stress over the holiday season, don’t forget that this kind of emotional labor and kin care is work — and not only will it take time and energy, but it might also stir up some emotional or physical reactions that you weren’t expecting.

“Create space to acknowledge how you’re really feeling,” suggests Saba Harouni Lurie, the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy. “While some of us may think we’re calm when we’re in auto-pilot and completing tasks, we may find a different story when we truly check in with our bodies.”

In other words: Even though you might be telling yourself (and everyone else) that it’s okay that you can’t travel this year, or that you can make just as many memories over Zoom, your body may want to grieve the losses associated with this unprecedented holiday season (whether they’re COVID-related or not).

You may also simply need time to process the stresses associated with making the meals and the shopping lists and the Zoom schedules that will give your family the opportunity to make those holiday memories — and if you don’t take that time, your body might start sending out warning signals. “Maybe we’re carrying a lot of stress in our shoulders, or we have a headache,” says Lurie. “These unspoken tensions can clue us in to the fact that we are actually feeling overwhelmed.”

How does Lurie suggest we deal with these complicated emotions and tensions? By acknowledging how we really feel about the holidays — even if those feelings are negative. “Giving yourself a chance to feel and acknowledge what you’re really feeling, and then soothing yourself when you have the opportunity, can help you access a deeper state of calm than just seeming put together on the surface.”

In addition to checking in with your own emotions, it’s also a good idea to regularly check in with your partner and your children. They may also be processing some big feelings about this year’s holiday season, and these kinds of feelings often become less of a burden when they are shared.

“Encourage your children to talk to you,” says Prescott. “Tell them that you are here for them and validate their feelings that it is normal to feel disappointed or sad or whatever they may be feeling. This is a really hard time!”

Practice self-care

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of love, good cheer and generosity — but many of us spend the entire month of December feeling like we’re coming up short. During this unprecedented holiday season, it’s more important than ever to practice the kind of self-care that will allow you to forgive your mistakes and give yourself the same love and kindness you’d give your family and friends.

Anjani Amladi, a board-certified adult psychologist, puts it this way: “If your best friend called you and told you they were stressed about the upcoming holidays, especially given the pandemic, what would you do to make them feel better? Then do that for you. We have a tendency to take good care of the people we love most, but don’t apply that same level of concern to ourselves.”

What are some good self-care activities to practice during the 2020 holiday season? Regular exercise — outside, if you can. “Fresh air can lift your spirit, and exercise helps to increase endorphins in your body which can help improve your mood,” says Amladi. Meditation, either on your own or with the help of mental health apps like Aaptiv. Sleep, because a good night’s sleep makes everything better (and because stresses become worse when you’re sleep-deprived).

Remember that self-care doesn’t have to be a solo act. Taking the time to share your stresses with people you love and trust, whether you’re checking in with your partner, texting a friend or calling your mom, can help you find connection, perspective and balance — and might even help you come up with some solutions to the tricky holiday problems that are keeping you up at night.

If you need additional support processing the emotions associated with a pandemic holiday season, consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional. “There is nothing wrong with seeking professional help,” says Amladi. “Sometimes an objective party can help you to process difficult times, especially loss and the painful emotions that come with it. They can also provide extra support and new ways of coping that you may feel uncomfortable asking friends and family for.”

This kind of self-care and support might be the most important gift you can give yourself, during this unusually stressful holiday season — and it might be the best way to help you keep your calm during the Covid holidays.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have heightened the holiday blues, but there are many healthy habits that we can incorporate into our daily routine to help us find that holiday joy. Set realistic expectations this year to have the perfect holiday, practice mindfulness, and identify what could possibly be a stressor or stress trigger to you and your family. Find your inner calm, you deserve all the joy during the 2020 holiday season.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate,, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

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