Banishing Holiday Stress

What is it about the holidays that causes more stress than fun? Why are women more susceptible to stress during the holidays? How can women not only survive the holidays, but actually enjoy them?

Many women face (and typically ignore) these questions as holiday demands and expectations start to build. When stores are filled with Christmas music, commercials chide you to buy gifts that are “just right,” and Hallmark images of family perfection abound, it is hard to gain perspective. Who has not succumbed to last-minute buying, late-night present-wrapping, and dashed hopes of family harmony as the holidays descend? Advertisements build on hopes and fantasies that the holidays will bring joy, reunite families separated by miles or personal differences, and create lasting memories. It seems like everyone is having a great time, laughing it up at holiday parties, and having bonding experiences with their families.

The reality of stress, family conflict, tight finances, and unreasonable expectations is rarely acknowledged in these picture-perfect scenarios. Most families are not perfect, and reuniting during the holidays can be a sad reminder that expectations of love, harmony, and connection may never be met. Many people stretch their budgets based on assumptions of what constitutes meaningful gift-giving. Some feel that the more expensive the present and the fancier the wrapping, the better they can convey holiday wishes. Guilt and shame sometimes follow unmet expectations; sadness and resentment can develop when personal needs and fantasies are not achieved.

Women tend to take the brunt of this. As stereotypical as it may seem, women tend to be the family planners, organizers, and peacekeepers during the holidays. In most families, women are still the ones who write the cards, bake the cookies, and change the sheets for visiting guests. They are often more aware of what the kids want, how to get it, and where to find the best sales. They usually tend to the details, like finding costumes for the holiday pageant, remembering to tip the mail carrier, and knowing that cousin Joe’s food allergies require special consideration at holiday meals.

A phone survey of almost 800 individuals conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2006 found that women were more likely to feel stressed during the holidays. Forty-four percent of the women surveyed (as opposed to 31% of the men) reported an increase in stress. While both genders identified money, time, and gift-giving pressure as the greatest stressors, more women than men reported feeling affected by them.

How can you reduce holiday stress?

  • Identify what is meaningful. Make room for what you enjoy, spend time with the people you love, and seek out what is most spiritually meaningful to you during the holidays. Discard old meaningless traditions and avoid unnecessary rote tasks that are  performed only because they have persisted over time.
  • Take care of yourself. This means making time for sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. Improve time management skills and take into account how plans and decisions will affect you. For example, try to travel when there will be less traffic on the roads, shop when the malls are less crowded, and turn down unnecessary requests.
  • Express your thoughts and feelings. Communicate about finances and expenses, share both your hopes and expectations, and reach out for emotional support when needed. If you let others know how you feel and what you need, you may get what you want.
  • Plan and delegate. Don’t assume that you are solely responsible for organizing, shopping, and completing holiday tasks. Get your family involved, ask for help, and delay obligations that can wait. Make plans ahead of time about how tasks can be accomplished and who needs to take responsibility for them.
  • Develop your own traditions. You are not obligated to assume others’ visions of the holidays, whether they are your family of origin’s traditions or the media’s dictates. New traditions build a sense of control and meaning and can allow you to distance yourself from others’ expectations.
  • Challenge unrealistic expectations. Challenging fantasies and assumptions about what constitutes the perfect holiday is perhaps the most important tool for reducing holiday stress. Coming up with more realistic expectations can quell feelings of disappointment. In times of hardship or loss, the holidays can exacerbate feelings of loneliness or sadness. However, most people don’t have a “Hallmark holiday” and most families are not perfect. Pay attention to when unrealistic beliefs start to color your vision. Learning to accept and appreciate what you do have can be a lesson in finding joy in smaller packages.

Have a stress-free holiday!

© Copyright 2010 by Gail Post, PhD, therapist in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cheryl


    November 30th, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    Almost everything ‘holiday season’ is now purely commercial and that is partly to blame for all the stress caused during the holiday season.The major thing to blame here is gifts.All the money spent in buying a bigger gift could have actually been avoided if the onus was on giving a ‘vetter’ and not a bigger gift.

  • jim


    December 1st, 2010 at 2:49 AM

    ” women tend to be the family planners, organizers, and peace-keepers during the Holidays. In most families, women are still the ones who write the cards, bake the cookies, and change the sheets for visiting guests.”

    you are spot on there! it is for this reason that men must learn to share the responsibilities and things mentioned here…it will not only reduce the burden on the woman of the house but will also make her feel a lot better that her husband is helping her…



    December 1st, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    Wow,the topic sure sounds authoritarian what with the word ‘banishing’ used in context with holiday stress. But unfortunately for me it’s not so easy. Not only banishing but just keeping it at bay seems tough.
    No matter how early we start there always seem to be things that we’ll need to rush through in the last minute. No matter how much we think or do there will always be someone unhappy. Does it always have to be this way?!

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