December 21, 2023

As the holidays approach each year, a number of common themes surface in therapy. Some people look forward to spending time with loved ones or decking out their house in seasonal décor. But for many, holidays are associated with feeling overwhelmed, tense, or sad.

Katie Wojtalewicz PsyD, LP


The reasons are diverse, though they often involve grief over those who are absent, tension amongst family members, pressures to pull off perfection, or dread about the sheer amount of work involved. Fortunately, there are a number of things that can help us manage these challenging emotions and channel them into a more rewarding, less stressful season.

For those struggling with grief after the death of a family member or friend, holidays can be a painful reminder that they’re gone. Perhaps we can’t help but see their empty seat at the table or miss their role in a long-standing family tradition. There is no right way to grieve.

Some families choose to take a break from their yearly holiday rituals and travel elsewhere or celebrate at a different time entirely. Others find it helpful to talk through their feelings and remember their loved one with stories while they’re all under the same roof. Sometimes it can be comforting to continue favorite traditions while adding new ones to reflect changes in the family over time. Most important is to allow room for everyone to experience their grief differently—with compassion and non-judgment.

For those families who are divided by tension and conflict, holiday get-togethers can stir anxiety and frustration. When possible, it’s appropriate to set some boundaries or request more controversial topics be avoided.

If it’s difficult for the room full of people to find common ground, a structured activity can be a good way to redirect tense conversation into purposeful cooperation. This might take the form of playing a game, teaching a skill, going on an outing, or baking holiday treats. If you’re particularly tense, it’s helpful to remember that your discomfort is temporary and you won’t have to navigate these dynamics once you wave goodbye and head for home.

Most people can identify at least one aspect of the holidays that bring them joy, whether it’s spending time with loved ones, decorating, cooking, or participating in activities and events through their community or places of worship.

However, doing justice to ALL aspects of the holiday season at once tends to cause people to feel overwhelmed and burnt out. It’s easy to get swept up in societal messages about what the holidays are supposed to look like, how much money we should spend, and how effortlessly we should pull it off. But why?

While we’re tempted to create a sort of magic during the holidays, our fondest memories are often of simple moments and the people who mattered to us. Choose one or two areas where you’d like to put more of your effort and consider doing a “good enough” job for the other holiday tasks you find less rewarding or difficult.

By setting more realistic expectations for ourselves during this time, we’re freed up to focus on what really counts.