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Six Tips for Keeping Holiday Stress at Bay



Here are some practical ways to improve your mental health and even find joy this season.

Viwek Bisen

By Dr. Viwek Bisen, Senior Medical Director, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey 

Let’s face it: making the holidays the most wonderful time of the year can be really stressful.

Cooking, shopping, baking, decorating and hosting family members can place enormous demands on your mental health any winter. But in 2020, the threat of getting sick from COVID-19 – or the sadness of losing a loved one to the virus – has made this season particularly anxiety-ridden.

We’ve already witnessed how damaging the pandemic has been to mental health. And we also know that the holiday blues are a real thing — a time when loneliness and depression rise. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64 percent of people with mental illness report that holidays make their conditions worse.

Put these two together, and many people will struggle. But with some preparation and practical tips, you can learn to reduce your stress, cope with difficult emotions and re-discover joy this holiday season.

Identify your feelings

From job losses to dashed plans, we’ve all been through a lot this year. If you’re feeling upset, that’s perfectly normal. It’s okay not to feel okay. Recognizing these feelings and articulating them – instead of pushing them down to pretend to be in the holiday spirit – can make things seem less overwhelming.

And you don’t need to sort through your emotions on your own. Reach out for help – to an old friend, a coach, a religious figure in your life, or a therapist, if need be. And don’t forget to provide that support for others. A simple question of asking how someone is holding up can go a long way towards boosting their spirits.

Set family expectations

It goes without saying that the holidays will look different this year. But you still may need to tell that to your family. Traditions like large family gatherings should be off the table due to COVID-19 concerns. If you have disagreements with your family about socializing, be honest about your feelings by advocating for your own health while still being respectful of others’ opinions. You can switch your holiday dinner or gift exchange to a virtual event.

Plan ahead

From baking dozens of cookies to finding that perfect tree, it’s impossible to fit in all of your holiday activities at once. Trying to simply raises your stress level. Make a list of what needs to get done, then set aside time to make sure you can keep everything under control. And don’t forget to take a break for yourself, such as going for a walk or practicing deep-breathing exercises.

Know your limits

Everyone wants a perfect holiday, but it’s important to be realistic about your expectations. Take gift-giving, for example. If you can get something for everyone on your list, great. But if buying presents this year is too physically or financially draining, consider instead deciding as a family to make a group donation to a worthy charity. It not only simplifies your life, but it’s a positive bonding experience for your family and an altruistic one at that.

Keep up healthy habits

The holidays can be marked by overindulgence, but going overboard can make you feel guilty afterwards. Make sure you eat healthy meals (within reason), get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and avoid recreational drugs or excessive use of alcohol.

Express gratitude

Even this year, we can all find something to be thankful for. It’s a good time to take stock of your life and reflect on what has brought you happiness, security and love. Seeing the proverbial glass half-full rather than half-empty can help improve your mood, and gratitude itself has been proven to improve your mental health.

If you’re still feeling depressed or hopeless during or after the holidays, you may need to talk to a qualified health care professional about your condition. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey members can find a behavioral health professional or check out our guide to accessing mental health resources during the pandemic.