Holiday Stress: The 3 Major Causes and How to Deal


By: Natasha Sharma, M.Sc., CCPA


By: Natasha Sharma, M.Sc., OACCPP


Director, Relationship Expert, and Doctoral Student

NKS Therapy

Psychotherapy & Assessment Services

10 Four Seasons Place, Suite 1000

Toronto, Ontario, M9B 6H7

T: (647) 862-4173



Back when I was a psychology grad student at Johns Hopkins, I took a class with a special focus on Anxiety. Somewhere in the textbook for this course there was a rank ordered list of stressful life events that could potentially lead to psychological distress, fittingly called a ‘stress scale.’ As I scanned the list, I saw many of the usual suspects: Divorce, dismissal from work, taking on a major mortgage or foreclosure of a house. Then my eyes flashed across a word I wasn’t expecting: Christmas. Incidentally, it ranked as more stressful a life event than experiencing a minor legal infraction! At first the foolish student in me laughed, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense.

Stress is the body’s natural reaction to major changes in our environment, and it isn’t always a bad thing. In appropriate amounts and duration, stress can motivate us to identify and adapt to these changing events, a crucial life skill. Chronic and pervasive stress, however, may lead to unhealthy anxiety. The October through January 1 ‘holiday stretch’ usually results in a lot of extra stuff going on for many people. In my experience as a Toronto Counsellor and Psychotherapist, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, or other cultural events, holiday stress usually falls into 3 main categories: Family, Keeping Appearances, and Time. Here is my take on why we get so stressed out at this time of year and more importantly, what to do about it.


1. Ah family. I’m talking about birth and extended family members, like siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws. Some we like. And some we just don’t. And we typically come together with some or all of them over the holidays, often at multiple times. A lot of my clients worry about confronting difficult or annoying family members, the types who ‘shame and blame’, constantly criticize, brag and compare, or take not-so-subtle digs at them. Avoid letting these types get under your skin. Here’s how to deal: Expect these family members to behave that way, before heading to the gathering. When you expect it to happen, you take away all the fear and anxiety over wondering and worrying what they’ll be like, because you already know. Then if by chance they behave well, it will be a pleasant surprise. Either way, you’ll feel calmer. If people do fall out of line or hit below the belt, address it with them immediately, calmly, and firmly. And remember that they alone are responsible for their actions. You are responsible for your reactions.

2. Social pressure to ‘be’ or ‘look’ a certain way has always been nagging presence in life. From getting the ‘right’ gifts to having the perfect job, being in a great relationship, having the perfect marriage, house, and kids…this list goes on and on. The popularity of social media has inadvertently created the opportunity to compare ourselves to one another on a 24-7 basis. In addition, we invariably spend some of our holiday time updating and answering questions about our lives to people we may not have seen for some time. Here’s how to deal: Practice the art of gratitude. Be grateful for where you are and what you have. If you’re reading this article, chances are you already have more than many people in the world do, including health, shelter, food, and safety. The abundance of the holidays should be a stark reminder of that, but often they’re not. Mentally forbid yourself from keeping score in your head with who’s doing what, where, and how much they make. Be humble, be you, and be proud of all that goes with it.

3. If there is ever a time in the year when we have a desperate lack thereof, it’s around the holidays. From office parties to family engagements, shopping and preparing, it’s no wonder we feel stretched to our limits. Feeling like you’re on a deadline you might not meet can cause a ton of stress. Here’s how to deal: Pace yourself and learn how to say ‘no’. You can’t do everything, so consciously choose what you can and can’t commit to around the holidays. Focus your energy on what you enjoy the most. If parties and gatherings are your thing, perhaps you can order some or all of your holiday meal pre-made. If you love cooking and preparing your home for the holidays, you don’t have to accept every invitation to events. Make lists, and avoid cramming too many things into one day. Most importantly, take time out of every day to unwind completely alone. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Your body and your mind will thank you!