In the midst of the the time of year marked by twinkling lights, cooler air, and the aroma of holiday scents, a silent struggle looms for many people: a holiday season marked by increased anxiety and mental health challenges. We are told that we should relax, savor the joy of the season, spend time with loved ones, and lean in to all this season has to offer. And while all of that sounds great in theory, many people face a myriad of complex emotions that challenge the notion that the season is supposed to be marked with simplicity, relaxation, and pure joy. 

From complicated family dynamics and expectations to financial pressures and time management struggles, there are a large handful of common sources of anxiety that can underscore the less illuminated side of the holiday season. Below are some of these common sources of anxiety paired with a quick tip to help you approach this source of anxiety throughout the season.

5 Common Sources of Anxiety During the Holiday Season

1. Family Dynamics

Family is often a focal point of the holiday season, which, for some people, is part of why they love this time of year. For others, this elicits a lot of anxiety and stress. Whether you’re feeling that tight feeling in your chest when you think of the holidays and family together because your own family’s dynamics have shifted since last year, because you’ve been effectively avoiding tense or charged interactions with certain family members since last year’s holidays, or because your family dynamic has been or become a source of anxiety for other reasons, complicated family dynamics can put a significant damper on your ability to enjoy this season. 

Quick Tip: Manage Expectations for Family Gatherings

Approaching challenging family dynamics well is certainly not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. One tip that can be a particularly helpful starting point is to manage your expectations for each family interaction you may be having.  Consider what is most likely to occur at this family gathering – Doing this can help you go into a family gathering or interaction with realistic expectations that may lessen feelings of disappointment and frustration that could result from tense interactions or awkward comments and conversations.

There are so many nuances to complicated family dynamics; if you’re looking for more tips in this area, check out this article for more strategies and tips on navigating the holiday season when family dynamics are particularly complicated!

2. High Expectations for the Season

There are societal expectations for the holidays to look, feel, and be perfect. Advertisements, marketing campaigns, and holiday movies are among the things that perpetuate the pressure to make decorations, gatherings, gifts, outfits, cards, families, and meals all look or unfold a certain way.. Unrealistic and, therefore, unattainable expectations for what the holiday experience entails can lead to stress and disappointment when elements of the season do not match what we have built in our minds.

In recent years, I have felt overwhelming amount of pressure to have matching family pajamas for Christmas morning, a homemade breakfast recipe to start a breakfast tradition, and the idea that every inch of my house needed to be adorned with beautiful decor, and a Hallmark movie-esque cookie baking day sometime leading up to all of this. And don’t get me wrong, I would still love all of these things to happen, but all of them at once simply isn’t a realistic expectation for my life season (or maybe for any of my life seasons- hah!).

Quick Tip: Prioritize an Expectation or Two

As the holiday season unfolds, make note of all of the internalized expectations you have for yourself and the season we are in and entering into. Consider picking one or two of these things that you want to focus on this year. For instance, decorating your front porch and baking cookies may be two things you want to be sure you do in the days and weeks leading up to a holiday. Make these two your priority and try to let go of this rest. In essence, you are releasing yourself from the expectations that you maybe didn’t even realize you had, which can help lessen anxiety and increase feelings of satisfaction throughout the season.

3. Loneliness

The communal nature of the holiday season has a way of highlighting the voids we may have or feel in our own relationships. The loneliness some of us feel may be result from relationship loss or shifts, being around family and friends but still feeling alone, and/or because we are physically alone on holidays. Wherever the source of loneliness lies, it can be all consuming during a time of year that boasts community and togetherness.

Quick Tip: Be open to (even unconventional) connection

Whether you are surrounded by a room full of people and feeling lonely or you are experiencing physical loneliness, consider ways that you can lean into a connection. Maybe that means accepting an invitation to a distant relative or friend’s gathering (even though it feels awkward), seeking out an opportunity to volunteer somewhere in your community at some point during the season, inviting someone into your gathering pace who may also be feeling lonely during this time (even if you haven’t spoken in a while!). The holidays can be a great time for reconnection that can help combat some of the loneliness some of us experience.

4. Overcommitment

Many people feel pressured to attend numerous events, engage in various activities, and attend all the gatherings during the holiday season. You may find yourself at kids’ Christmas shows and concerts, friends’ gatherings, volunteering engagements, work parties, hosting and attending multiple gatherings on a given holiday for different sides of family.

It can be stressful to try to manage your time in a way that feels “fair” to everyone while also providing yourself the space to slow down and enjoy the days. And it can feel exciting to say, “yes!” to many of these opportunities because, in and of themselves, they may be enjoyable things you genuinely look forward to doing. However, we often find ourselves with so little free time amidst all of the commitments that we end up anxious, stressed, and maybe even a bit resentful at the fact that we are doing and going more than we are simply being during this season. 

Quick Tip: Assess your commitments

As you feel your calendar start filling up, sit down and look at all of the commitments you have. I like to do this in a physical planner where I can highlight and make notes, but your google calendar works, too! Determine which days and weeks you are “at capacity” in terms of commitments and actually indicate somehow that you are maxed out for this day or week. If you see a day or week that feels like you have too much going on, strategize for how you may be able to lessen the load of that day, and do not be afraid to say, “no” to additional requests for your time or resources if you are feeling stretched thin. 

5. Finances

It is no secret that finances can be a source of stress and anxiety during the holiday season. If part of your holiday season includes decorating, gift-giving, and/or hosting or attending gatherings, you are likely feeling the pressure to spend in areas that fall outside of your normal budgeted spending.

Quick Tip: Determine and communicate your spending boundaries where necessary

If you know you need to set a gifting boundary in an area where you have not previously, some of the anxiety can come from not knowing how to approach this with the people with whom you typically exchange gifts. You may feel some internal or external pressure to overextend yourself  with gifts, decorating, providing food or resources for a gathering. But it is important that, if you have spending boundaries, you prioritize these to avoid unnecessary anxiety and resentment.  

I have found that an open and honest conversation can help alleviate this anxiety because it gives you the opportunity to communicate both your heart and your boundary. For instance, “I absolutely love exchanging gifts with everyone, but as our family grows, I am wondering if we can reevaluate and make a plan for how to make gift exchanges reasonable so no one is in a position where they feel pressure to spend money they do not have.” You may find that others are feeling the same way you are and really appreciate you bringing it up.

Crafting a Fulfilling Holiday Experience without the Added Anxiety

As we move forward through the holiday season, it is evident that many of us experience, yet try to conceal, anxieties that can have a negative impact on our holiday experience and on our mental health. Whether your anxieties related to the next few months are within the above list or are entirely different, it is important to acknowledge and address them so that you can have an enjoyable, gentle, and fulfilling holiday season. Doing so can help us foster a sense of wellbeing that transcends the holidays into your normal day-to-day interactions, boundaries, and expectations, too!

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions you may experience during the holiday seasonour therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!