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Your Survival Guide for Dealing With Holiday Stress

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

A bulldog looks toward the camera, laying on the red ground with a dazed expression.  The dog wears a red and white holiday sweater and fake reindeer antlers.
The holidays are supposed to be fun, but can make us stressed out and dog tired.

The holidays are a stressful time for many reasons. There are the crowds of shoppers for one. Even if you do a lot of your holiday shopping online, your usual places like grocery stores and coffee shops might still have bigger crowds than they usually do. And while there is a lot put out at this time of year about "peace on Earth and goodwill toward all," it certainly seems like peace and goodwill are in short supply when you're out among the crowds!

The winter holidays are also a time of high stress if you've experienced a significant change in your life in the past year. You might be struggling to find a job and worried about finances when the media is telling you spend, spend, spend! This may be your first year away from home as a young adult. Or it may be your first winter holiday season without someone important in your life because they passed away over the past year. You may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder and struggle with low energy and symptoms of depression. Perhaps you've been diagnosed with something that affects your diet and you're worried about how people will react if you don't eat much at holiday parties where there will be a lot of food you can't have.

Meanwhile you are bombarded messages about good cheer, family and friends, connections to loved ones, and generally telling you to be happy, cheerful, thankful, and positive. Even if people acknowledge your struggles, they might tell you to "look on the bright side," or "count your blessings" thinking they're being supportive when they're really just making you feel worse.

Bah, humbug! It's enough to make anyone going through something challenging feel like going Grinch.

The holidays can be additionally difficult if you worry about being treated differently or mistreated by family because you're part of the LGBTQIA+ community. You may be worried about having to see family who are unsupportive or even antagonistic if you are out. Or, if you're not out (and that's okay!), you might worry about having to keep your authentic self hidden. This can be especially hard if you are having to do things like changing your presentation or being called by your deadname by family in order to stay safe. Or maybe other family members are telling you to "play nice" or "do it for my sake."

While we may not be able to avoid all of the stressors and struggles of the winter holiday season, we can take steps to plan out a survival strategy to deal with holiday stress.

It's kind of like having a survival kit we can turn to. This is handy because we're not always thinking best when we're struggling. Stress affects our brains in ways that can actually make it hard to think about how to react to a situation or remember how we planned to deal with things. This is even harder if we have some form of holiday stress related to trauma.

In times like this, having a Holiday Surival Plan on a sheet or stored in your phone can be handy. It takes a lot of the thinking out of the moment so you can just follow the plan.

It's also helpful to brainstorm these things in advance so that you can gather up what you need. For example, you might create a literal holiday surival box with comfy clothes, a weighted blanket, your favorite foods, and anything else that brings you pleasure or comfort.

If you're going to be traveling, it's helpful to have information for emergency services near you if you are worried about your wellbeing or safety. It's also handy to have comfort things like your favorite songs, shows, or movies downloaded onto your laptop or phone so you can enjoy them even if you don't have Internet access.

The following list isn't exhaustive and you can look up lots of other ideas online that you might find helpful. Whatever your list looks like, the important thing is to plan some things in advance:

  1. Know your triggers - These are the things you might encounter that you know will stress you out. It might be hearing your deadname or someone trying to talk politics with you. It might be going to a restaurant that was special to someone you lost recently. It may even be sounds or smells.

  2. Know your tells - In poker, a "tell" is something a person does that subtly reveals something about the cards they are holding and whether they are feeling good or bad about their hand. For our well-being, our tells are things that let us know we are stressed even if it takes us a while to realize it. It might be physical things like a racing heart or tight stomach. It might be mental, like trying to predict how someone will react to you at a holiday gathering or overwhelming repeated thoughts about something from the past. It might even be behavioral like, isolating yourself when you're normally very social or, on the other hand, avoiding time alone because things feel empty without a person or pet who passed away.

  3. Know your responses - This is the main point of having a plan written out where you can look at it. When you're struggling with thoughts and emotions because of your triggers, it can be hard to remember how you planned to respond. Writing them out so you can look at them and choose gives your brain a break from dealing with a crisis when you're already stressed.

Feel free to brainstorm your own surival plan, but you are welcome to download the worksheet found at the end of this blog to fill out and keep handy. You can also take a picture of it and keep it on your phone for easy reference, especially if you are concerned about others seeing it. These items are ones that I have found helpful in developing plans with clients, including safety plans for crisis situations and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Three triggers you might encounter.

Described more above, these are things you know would create stress rapidly and be difficult to deal with. They can be sounds, smells, locations, situations, or anything else that might trigger a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response.

Three signs you need self-care.

These are your tells. Physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, and even behaviors that tell you you're in need of taking care of yourself when you notice them.

Three things you can do for self-care.

This has a lot of choice and can be customized for you. Self-care can be such a loaded term because it's often related to things like yoga, meditation, getting a massage, or other things that can feel like a chore when you're stressed. But it can be something easy like just stepping away from a situation or simply allowing yourself a favorite treat. Plus, not everyone has the time or finances for things like a yoga class or massage. So think about the things that bring you comfort and pleasure.

You might choose to mix it up for a variety of things. For example:

  • One quick and easy thing that just takes about 10 minutes like pausing to breathe mindfully, doodle, or play with a pet for a few minutes. 

  • One medium thing  that takes more time but is still easy to do, like watching an episode of one of your feel-good shows, taking a walk, doing some stretching, or talking with one of your contacts. 

  • One big thing that might involve more time and effort, like baking something or getting a game group together for a few hours.

One thing you give yourself permission to feel, think, or do.

This is a hard one for a lot of people, because it means responding to yourself with compassion rather than shame, guilt, or a lot of "shoulds." It might be allowing yourself to feel sad because you miss someone you've lost without making yourself feel guilty for not being "cheerful." The winter holidays place a lot of emphasis on connection to friends and family, which hurts all the more when we've lost someone.

It might be allowing yourself to feel emotions like sadness or anger when you see the mixed messages of "peace on Earth" on TV right before the news shows something about what is happening in the world or the latest attack on trans rights or bodily autonomy.

However you feel during the holidays is natural and it's okay to feel that way. But getting pulled deeper by your feelings and doing things like self-isolating while doom-scrolling might also be one of your signs that you need to give yourself some care while also allowing yourself to have your feelings.

It might also involve setting a boundary with someone, which can be incredibly hard when family is pressuring you to get along with everyone and "don't make a scene." So you might give yourself permission to set a boundary like, "I will talk to grandma as long as we don't get into politics. If she brings that up, I will make it clear that I'm not talking about that." Or, it may be setting the boundary of telling other family members that you won't go to an event or telling your friends that you won't be going to a dinner at a restaurant that reminds you of someone important you've lost.

It's okay to set boundaries. You're not being mean. You deserve understanding and respect.

People you can contact for support.

The worksheet below has space for two people, but feel free to add more if you like. These are people that make you feel good when you talk with them. They don't have to be someone you open up to completely if you don't want. Write down their names and numbers and other contact information if you like, such as their Discord address if you don't already have them added as a friend. Writing this down helps so that you don't have to look up the info if you don't have it stored somewhere. (Or, worse, your phone has no charge.)

One emergency contact for if you're really struggling.

This is the name, number, and other contact info for someone you can talk to if you're really struggling. Ideally, this is a safe person you can be totally open with, including if you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

The name, address, and phone number of the closest medical or mental health emergency service to where you will be.

Just like with your other contacts, having this already written down is incredibly helpful if you are in a situation that affects your ability to think clearly. If you are going to be close to where you live over the holidays, then you can write the information down for your local medical center or any other emergency center in your area that you know you can rely on and ideally trust.

If you are going to be away from home for any part of the holiday, however, it can be helpful to look up the info for any emergency medical center in the area that also has mental health services. That way, you're not trying to look it up online while in the middle of a panic attack or triggering event.

And, on the practical side, this can be good to know for general emergencies that can arise during the holidays.

I hope that this worksheet provides you with some value and assurance. I certainly hope that you don't need it and that your winter holidays are enjoyable in some way, even if you're going through a lot right now. But, as I have seen with many clients struggling with various crisis situations, having a solid idea of how you'll respond to challenges and having those ideas written down go a long way to feel resilient and empowered to take on those challenges.

You can download the worksheet here.

My Holiday Survival Plan
Download PDF • 71KB

Do you have ideas for the list or questions? Would you like to talk to see if we would be a good fit to support you in your challenges over the holidays and possibly beyond? Click the button below to contact me.

Whatever the next couple of months bring you, you've got this. I believe in you.




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