Advance with MUSC Health

It’s the Most Stressful Time of the Year

Jerry Reves, M.D.
November 22, 2022

A person wearing a Santa hat and face mask looking upset.

Holidays are stressful. Merriam-Webster defines stress as "bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium."

The holidays do in fact disrupt our equilibrium – every December! 

The major reason is that the reality does not meet the expectations.

We want the holidays to be happy and merry: Why else do we wish everyone Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah? Expectations are also set high by media advertisements, the countless joyous holiday movies (rebroadcast every year) and the seemingly endless number of holiday parties, where only a grinch would be out of sorts.

Of course, the reality is we're the same people during the holidays as at any other time, and things are not always as joyful as we hope.

We might have suffered a major loss; we might have a chronic illness; we certainly have friends and even family who can upset our equilibrium. The result is physical and mental stress.

Stressors During the Holidays

We face a host of stressors at this time of year. Your list will be longer than mine, no doubt. Mine includes travel, visitors, entertaining, parties, atypical chores, eating, drinking, unpredictable weather, sleep deprivation, financial threats and the most dreaded of all – feeling lonely when we're supposed to be enjoying the company of family and friends.

Yes, instead of being that most wonderful time of the year, the holidays can turn into a very joyless time.

What Can Happen During the Holidays

All of our routines are interrupted, affecting our sleep, rest and exercise. We also indulge in the inevitable dietary indiscretions at holiday gatherings.

Add alcohol, which seems to be more plentiful during the holidays, and this can contribute to poor judgment in many situations.

Travel is often a part of the holidays – either visiting or hosting family and friends. Airport security, fewer flights and flight cancellations, COVID protocols and, for those traveling out of the country, keeping up with rules and regulations all add another layer of stress.

House guests (yes, family are your guests) make for an especially stressful time with meal preparation, event planning and trying to make all those under the roof feel at home (which they are not).

Finally, for those on fixed budgets, the holidays pose financial problems in these inflationary times due to all the gifts, parties, travel and the season's general spirit of generosity.  Nobody wants to seem like Scrooge.

A Survival Plan for the Holidays

Rejoice! You can survive the holidays without raising your stress level:

  • Have realistic expectations for the holiday season. You've experienced enough of them to know what to expect.
  • Plan ahead for events and gatherings.
  • Don't over-commit: Guilt-free "no" is a useful word.
  • Do not join the competition for best food, party, decorations, etc.
  • Budget time, energy and money and stick to it.
  • Moderation in all things: food, alcohol, parties, sedentary TV, etc.
  • Maintain an exercise regimen and build in relaxation time.
  • Avoid confrontational conversations, e.g., politics.
  • If you're a believer, observe the holy days.
  • Accept and share your feelings, even if they're not cheerful.
  • Indulging in holiday fare is practically unavoidable and, well, downright enjoyable. This year, however, try to make healthier choices and cut down on high-fat, high-sugar dishes.
  • Choose turkey breast, salads, fresh fruit, assorted nuts, steamed vegetables and plain rice and potatoes.
  • Reach less often for prime rib and gravy, cakes and pies, high-caloric alcohol beverages and eggnog. Your waistline will thank you in January.

The Bottom Line

As we approach the holidays, let us remember three key things:

  1. The holidays — from Christmas to Hanukah to Kwanzaa — have deep meaning for those who choose to observe them.
  2. It's normal at this time to remember and grieve for those lost to you – spouses, family, friends, your health.
  3. And finally, take every opportunity to expose yourself to those things that are humorous and bring you laughter.