Winter Holiday Stress: Navigating Challenges and Prioritising Mental Well-being

A gold bauble on a Christmas tree, representing winter holiday stress.

While the holidays can be a time of great joy, comfort and positivity for some, they can also cause a great deal of stress and intensify the effects of existing pressures for many. Navigating family dynamics, financial pressures, and high expectations requires intentional self-care, awareness and management of personal triggers. This can be more challenging for some than with the environment, mental health, and support systems all having an impact on the intensity and effect of stress.

Prioritising mental health amidst the holiday rush might seem overwhelming or selfish, but embracing self care, saying no and establishing boundaries can ensure we have the energy and emotional capacity to care for those we hold dearest. Embracing simplicity, fostering connections, and maintaining a focus on gratitude can transform the holiday season into a source of joy, rather than stress.

Causes of Holiday Stress

If you experience low mood, heightened stress, a lack of sleep, and a general sense of overwhelm at this time of year – you are not alone. In a YouGov survey in 2019, 26% of respondents said their mental health worsened during the holiday season.[1]

Long, dark, gloomy winter days can feel heavy and repetitive, and the restlessness and darkening mood that this causes is often then compounded by financial and family stresses, with unrealistic expectations surrounding holiday activities adding to the strain.

Juggling social events, shopping, planning, cooking, travelling, and entertaining depletes our physical and emotional energy, which can contribute to heightened anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges during the festive season. These challenges are then often accompanied by guilt or frustration that the “most wonderful time of the year” is not as merry as it is meant to be.

Recognising Rising Stress Levels

Amidst the festive cheer, recognising rising stress levels becomes crucial for maintaining well-being. Physical and somatic experiences often serve as early indicators of heightened stress during this period. Tensions associated with holiday preparations and family gatherings can manifest as muscle tightness, headaches, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing. These bodily responses serve as red flags, signalling the need for mindful attention.

For people with a history of trauma or chronic stress, these feelings can be more intense and long lasting. Trauma disrupts the equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems,[2] and instead of triggering the parasympathetic system for ‘rest and digest’ after a stressful experience, the body may persistently remain in a state of fight, flight, or freeze.

In this activated state, the body is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This elevates the heart rate, suppresses digestion, causes muscle tension, and can affect cognition. The stress response is designed to put us in a state conducive to a life or death situation, in which our survival requires great speed, strength, and rapid decision-making.

It can also cause a freeze or fawn response, where we become incredibly still and rigid, or more appeasing in an attempt to calm and pacify a threat. While successful at keeping us alive in emergency situations, none of these responses are helpful for festive parties or preparations, and can leave us feeling angry, frustrated and overwhelmed.

The effects of chronic stress response activation as a result of trauma include hypervigilance, anxiety, and sleep problems. Awareness of these physical cues aligns with Polyvagal principles, enabling individuals to recognise stress patterns early on. Founder of the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, proposes that even in difficult situations, mind-body techniques like deep breathing, adjustments in posture, and vocalisation can lead individuals toward a state of mental and physical comfort, safety, and serenity.[3]

To navigate festive stress, it’s essential to link physical sensations with emotional well-being. Integrating mindful practices into the holiday routine, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calm.[4] Having an awareness of the intricate connection between physical and emotional experiences can help with proactively managing stress.

Finding Peace Amongst The Chaos

For those with mental health struggles, finding emotional stability and safety is likely at the very top of their Christmas wish list.

While self-care and stress management strategies alone are not treatments for mental health conditions, they can help to foster awareness, regulation, and more rigid boundaries. The festive period, while joyous, can bring about heightened stress. Managing stress during the festive period involves implementing thoughtful strategies for a more relaxed and enjoyable experience:

Set Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations is key, as the pressure to create a picture perfect day or week can cause layers of stress, disappointment and frustration. Despite what may be painted across advertising and social media, perfection is unattainable, and it’s okay if everything doesn’t go as planned. Cultivating a mindset of flexibility, allows room for spontaneity and adapting to the unpredictable nature of the holidays.

Instead of expending all of our energy on the pursuit of the picture perfect day, prioritise self-care by incorporating moments of relaxation into your schedule, whether it’s a quiet walk, or deep breathing exercises.

Effective Time Management

Effective time management is crucial for alleviating stress this festive season. Planning ahead, creating a schedule, and delegating tasks can prevent overwhelm and resentment. Setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult, especially during a time of year when connection is highlighted.

However, saying no to additional commitments that may contribute to increased stress levels, will mean more authentic and meaningful connections with your closest friends or family. Communication is key when setting boundaries – be clear on what is acceptable and what is not.

Allow Space for Grief

Coping with grief during the festive season can be especially challenging. Allow yourself the space to feel and express your emotions. Create new traditions or modify existing ones to honour your loved one’s memory.

Seek support from friends, family, or support groups, and embrace self-compassion and prioritise self-care. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain and find meaningful ways to navigate the holiday season while honouring the legacy of those you have lost.

Honour Your Needs and Listen to Your Body

When it comes to stress, it’s important to listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Listen to physical cues such as muscle tension, headaches, or disrupted sleep, and create space to recognise emotional signals like irritability or sadness.

Prioritise self-care, incorporating activities that bring relaxation. For example, mindfulness practices, deep breathing, and gentle exercises can alleviate stress. Paying attention to these signals empowers you to proactively manage stress, fostering a more enjoyable and mentally resilient holiday season.

Dealing with Mental Illness

Navigating mental illness, substance use disorder, or eating disorders during the festive season requires a great deal of patience, compassion and understanding. Establish open communication with loved ones, articulating your needs and concerns. Prioritise self-care, recognising personal boundaries around food and alcohol during the festivities. It is important to seek support from mental health professionals or support groups when feelings become too intense.

Allowing for modifications to traditions will help to create an environment of inclusivity and safety. Finally, self-compassion is paramount, and it’s okay to prioritise mental well-being while fostering a mindful and balanced approach to the holiday season.



[2] Porges, S.W. (1995) ‘Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory’, Psychophysiology. Received March 6, 1995; Accepted March 23, 1995, 32(4), pp. 301–318. Available at:

[3] Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. W W Norton and Company.

[4] Toussaint L, Nguyen QA, Roettger C, Dixon K, Offenbächer M, Kohls N, Hirsch J, Sirois F. Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2021 Jul 2;2021:5924040. doi: 10.1155/2021/5924040. PMID: 34306146; PMCID: PMC8272667.