Riding the Roller Coaster of the Holiday Season

roller coasterFor most of us, stress is hard to avoid, and as we enter the holiday season, stressors increase. We are bombarded with images of happy families, loving couples, and friends gathering, coming together to feast in the season of joy.

Sometimes, though, what’s going on in our lives simply doesn’t match up to our own high ideals and the idyllic portrayals that surround us. The season of joy can easily become a painful experience. Efforts to create happy family occasions can become exhausting, adding stress instead of good cheer.

Unwelcome House Guests

For a great many people, depression and stress can be unwelcome house guests during the holiday hurrah. The demands of family and celebration can quickly trigger old memories and rekindle past conflicts. It’s not always about food fears and the unwanted holiday bulge. Families can be a wonderful source of comfort and support, but the opposite can also be true.

Like everything else, most families experience moments of dysfunction. It’s not uncommon to have old sibling rivalries arise unbidden, triggered by a thoughtless comment. Suddenly, 40-year-olds are acting like 15-year-olds making inappropriate bids for attention, or worse.

Why Does This Happen?

When an event occurs and your mind stores a memory, the mind stores way more than the simple facts of the event. The emotion that occurred, the way you felt in that particular moment, is also recorded. Also, the smells that surrounded, the sounds that filled the air at the time, the song playing in the background—the minutest details can be easily stored along with the hard, cold facts of the event.

When we recall these old memories, we sometimes also find ourselves feeling the feelings that went along with the original event. This helps explain why remembering old hurts is painful and why recalling some memories is invigorating and makes us feel wonderful.

It isn’t difficult to see how families and friends who share a long history together will also share a mixture of positive and negative memories. When we gather during the holiday season, triggers to these old memories will abound.

Red Flags

So, how can we best prepare ourselves for these gatherings that, for some of us, offer a confusing and mixed bag of possibilities? First of all, just being aware that you are about to enter a season of events and gatherings that will include increased stressors is a great beginning.

Awareness is the first step to understanding. You can decide to let the strong emotions that arise suddenly be a red flag of sorts. Instead of reacting, you can let your thinking mind kick in, and take a quick moment to assess whether what you are feeling belongs in the here and now or comes from the past. Employing this tactic can give you the tiny space needed to take a few deep breaths, level out, and move on.

Other Ideas to Implement

  • Pace yourself; don’t spread yourself too thin. If it feels like too much, it probably is. You don’t always have to be the life of the party. Between the office parties and the family gatherings, your schedule can become grueling. Approach everything in moderation. Your body and mind will thank you in the New Year.
  • Don’t forget to spend some time on yourself. While taking in the obligatory family dinner may feel overwhelming for some, remember to compensate for your commitments with personal choices that will benefit you. Include visits or contact of any sort with close friends who will be both supportive and nutritious to your spirit. The holiday season is all about celebration and goodwill. You are allowed to spend time on yourself. This is as much your holiday as anyone else’s.
  • Let go of obligations. Remember that you are always at choice. Choose wisely and this will support your outcome to have a holiday that you want to remember, not one that you will regret.
  • Always go into holiday events with an intention. This will support your efforts to have an outcome that you intend to have.
  • Take time after the events to recharge by doing a rewind and recall of what worked and what didn’t, then make adjustments for the next event.
  • I recently wrote an article, Helpful and Easy Ways to Reduce Stress, with a number of easy-to-implement suggestions for reducing stress, including diet tips, breathing exercises, and meditation techniques.

In review, make each event count. Check in with yourself. See if there is anything in your awareness that needs attention. Adjust your thoughts and emotions by creating intentions that you wish to have, and avoid reactions that might set you back. Holidays are about giving, loving, receiving, and cheer. Make that your intention regardless of past histories and experiences. My blessings to you for a centered, peaceful, and intentional holiday experience.


Holiday, Anniversary & Memory Triggers (2013). Out of the Fog. Retrieved from http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/HolidayTriggers.html

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, LMFT

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • sonia

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:02 PM

    Comparing this to a roller coaster is a great analogy! You get excited about spending time with your family but there are also all of those hills and valleys of the past that come out and are bound to cause a little fear in some of us too. I have found myself reverting back to some of the same old roles that we had when growing up and I swear there have been times when I have had to take a breath and tell myself that we have all grown up now, be my grown up self and not the teenager of yesteryear. But it’s fun, I love the holiday season and don’t wnat to let anything get in the way of having a great time this season.

  • Jeff Bell

    December 3rd, 2013 at 8:24 PM

    This is a really good article. Very timely, as well. And the strategies that you recommend to dealing with the potentially stressful annual times are good and helpful. The key is being forewarned and focusing on noticing so you can catch the reactions and cycles before they pick up too much steam.

    I have one more strategy that I have found to be very helpful in these situations: When I can anticipate that there is an elevated risk of old patterns taking over and leading to undesirable reactions on my part, I set aside a little extra time before I show up at the family gathering or other such event and do a little self-care in the form of EFT, otherwise known as “emotional freedom technique, or simply “tapping”. It takes just a few minutes and it usually takes the power out of whatever triggers may be at work before they have time to rear their destructive little heads.

    I hope people find this to be useful. It has sure helped me to have a much more pleasant, fun and relaxed holiday season since I started doing this a few years ago.

  • Leslie

    December 4th, 2013 at 4:42 AM

    But most of us feed right in to the stress right? I mean, we have been shopping for Christmas since July and we willingly plan these family gatherings year after year knowing that these really aren’t people that you necessarily want to be around once the eggnog gets flowing. I say that sort of in jest but there is a lot that we bring on ourselves that really could be avoided if we were just willing to stand up and do it. But most of us aren’t quite that strong to say not again, not this year, I won’t feed into it. We go ahead and do it anyway.

  • guy smith

    December 4th, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    It isn’t difficult to see how families and friends who share a long history together will also share a mixture of positive and negative memories. When we gather during the holiday season, triggers to these old memories will abound.


  • carson

    December 4th, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    Isn’t this supposed to be the happiest time of the year? Why let all of this nonsense drag you down? Resolve to rise above all of that this holiday season and remember what this time of year should really be all about: friends, family, and the gift of love that we receive from God.

  • Kat

    December 5th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I used to think that it was my job and responsibility to cook every Christmas, to house every out of town guest, and to do everything that I could to ensure that everyone had a great holiday and Christmas. Everyone but me that is. I spent so much time worrying about all of them that I came to dread ot all because of all of the work that I ended up having to do and never enjoying myself. I am slowly trying to cut some of that out. Instead of cooking everything I now ask everyone to bring a dish. I have offered up hotel rooms for family members instead of my home. And I have started taking a little more me time so that I am still able to be the kind of host that I want to be. It’s been hard establishing those boundaries but ultimately I think that everyone has a better time when they know that they are contributing too and we don’t have to be with one another all of the time.

  • Geoffery

    December 6th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    i say just get on and enjoy the ride, in a few weeks it will all be normal and you can spend all year looking forward to it all over again ;)

  • ryan p

    December 7th, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    If you know that there is this toxic person in your life and they bring out the very worst in you, then make this your year to stand up against that and commit to saying no more. Time is too precious and valuable to allow the actions of one person ruin the entire holiday season for you.

  • Andra

    December 9th, 2013 at 4:41 AM

    Sometime around my last breakdown over all of the traveling that we always did around Thanksgiving and Christmas I just decided that enough was enough, if people want to see us then they can come to us for a change. So now we alternate where we travel each year and don’t try to cram in as much as we used to. Even though I am sometimes on the road or in the air over the holidays it now seems a little more manageable and a better way for me to stay sane to just say no to some invites and stay home when I can. I love all of the family dearly but it had gotten to be too much and would take a toll on me. I would be counting down the days until it was all over and I hated feeling that way about the holidays.

  • HoLlY

    December 11th, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    For me it has all beome about accepting that this is how it is and trying to be more fluid in my planning, not being so regimented and letting things happen a little more naturally than I would have let it happen in the past. I guess that this is a good lesson for life in general but for me I have had to learn to let go of a lot of the planning and micromanaging and just say you know what? This is Christmas and I should enjoy what life gives me. I may not have it all planned out but that’s ok, just sit back and enjoy the time that we have with one another.

  • Deb

    December 10th, 2014 at 2:50 PM

    Love this site ! Thanks for helping with articles and comments !

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