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IBX Insights

The Top 3 Sources of Holiday Stress (and How to Combat Them)

Woman feeling stressed sitting by a holiday tree.

These days, the holidays and stress seem to go hand-in-hand. Everywhere you go, people are harried, overwhelmed, and overscheduled. Instead of slowing down and spending time with family and friends, most people seem to be in overdrive. The reality is, the holidays have morphed into the most hectic, and unfortunately for some, the most dreaded time of year. But the holidays haven’t always been like this. So, what’s the root cause of all this stress?

Stressor #1: Society’s Expectations

Do you know what the most difficult holiday is for those struggling with depression? New Year’s Eve. The pressure to drink on New Year’s Eve often leads to drunken behavior and accidents and is often referred to as “amateur night” by those in recovery. This night is especially challenging because people who are suffering are told by society that this is the night to drink and be happy and things will improve. There’s a lot of pressure on people, and for those suffering from depression, that external pressure is very difficult to deal with. During the holidays in general, people put high expectations on themselves as they try to respond to all the traditions and pressures.

3 ways to combat the pressures of the season

Stressor #2: Memories

Holidays bring up a lot of memories, both happy and painful. During the holidays, it’s hard not to look back. Family and traditions remind us of the past, for better or worse. For many who experience painful memories around the holidays, their immediate response is to isolate. If you’re remembering a lost loved one, reach out to others — don’t go it alone. Isolating yourself makes you feel lonely and even more acutely aware of your loss. Remember that there is a difference between depression and grief. You don’t lose self-esteem with grief. Allow for the grieving memories, and share with others. Connecting over memories brings families together (“This cake tastes just like the one mom used to make!”).

Unfortunately, for those who have experienced abuse, the holidays can bring up negative memories. Fortunately, you have the power to change this. Make it your holiday. Create new traditions with new family and friends. Replace the negative memories with new, positive ones. This can be a powerful antidote to the pain.

If the holidays are generally a joyful time for you, help others by reaching out, even to strangers. You’ll likely receive a positive response.

Stressor #3: Family

Families are such an integral part of the holidays, and often they are the reason for so much joy during the holiday season. Unfortunately, many times they can also be the source of much stress. The key to dealing with family is to take charge of your situation.

If you’re spending time with family members or situations that could potentially be upsetting, start by thinking of a way to distract yourself, like with a game of football. Dilute an uncomfortable meeting with a troublesome family member by bringing friends to a family gathering. Oftentimes, this can help people behave better.

Avoid overindulging in alcohol, which just exacerbates things. Don’t turn to food to avoid stress. The holidays are a time of celebration, which usually means plenty of food and drink. For those with eating and drinking disorders, there seems to be a constant expectation to eat and drink. The best way to deal with that is to plan ahead. Reach out to family and friends to help get you through the season.

And finally, if you’re spending the holidays at another family member’s house, make sure you always have an “escape route” or “out” so you’re not dependent on someone else to leave. This way, you can choose to leave if it becomes too much for you.

Depression: Dispelling A Common Misconception

Did you know that most suicides actually take place in March, not during the holidays? It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s likely just because depression is more noticeable during the holidays. Depression increases as light decreases (seasonal affective disorder), and those suffering become more aware of their depression during the holiday season.

Don’t wait for the holidays to check in on someone who may be suffering. Holidays don’t always allow for supportive dialogue and understanding. During the craziness of the season, you might not have the chance to talk one-on-one. Anticipate this and call Aunt Margaret before the holidays, and schedule some time together after the holidays as well.

Beware of the Holiday Hype

The holidays go by quickly, and oftentimes, the anticipation is actually worse than the holiday itself. When you get to the actual holiday, a lot of times everything ends up being fine. If you’re dreading the holidays, it’s helpful to remember that sometimes the anticipation can be more overwhelming then the event itself.


Dario V. LaRocca, M.D.

I have been a medical director at Independence Blue Cross for over 15 years and have maintained a private practice in Psychiatry for over 30 years. My interest in mental health and its integration with physical health has been my life’s work. My role at IBX allows me to continue this work and be a psychiatric liaison to health services, providers, and hospital systems, as well as provide clinical guidance to programs at IBX.