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What to Do When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

Originally posted in collaboration with StyleBlueprint.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! For some of us. For others, the holiday season is marked by overwhelming feelings of stress, isolation, and even depression. Not to mention, not every family is the portrait of cheer, and the holidays can be a heavy reminder of toxic family dynamics or loved ones who have passed. If you’re approaching the season with anxiety or heartache, you’re not alone.

This time last year, we consulted with the emotional wellness experts at Onsite for practical ways to care for ourselves and others when the holidays aren’t happy. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, we think it warrants revisiting their insights and self-care strategies!

Why are the holidays so tough for some?

The holiday season doesn’t carry positive associations or memories for everyone. “The truth is, life’s hardships don’t always pause on behalf of our calendars,” says Laurel Powell, Onsite’s Clinical Coordinator Manager. “Many of us are walking through grief, loss, pain, and suffering — all while the season is supposed to be ‘merry and bright.’”

During such a concentrated time of social gatherings, financial pressure, and travel, the holiday hustle can be stressful and even bring about feelings of isolation and profound sadness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 64% of individuals with a mental illness feel their conditions worsen around the holidays. There are several significant factors at play:


“For many of us, our time is our most valuable resource,” says Laurel. “During the holidays, we often fill our calendars more than in other seasons. We find ourselves feeling obligated to say ‘yes’ to functions we don’t want to attend, people we don’t wish to see, and things we don’t want to do. Holiday fatigue and burnout negatively impact our mental health.”


Family dynamics play a huge role in who we are, how we live, and what our holiday plans look like — or don’t. “The holiday season often means more time spent with family or friends,” says Laurel, “and while that can often be a great thing, even in the most idyllic of family circumstances, tensions can rise due to increased proximity and amount of time together.”

She adds that a painful past, strained relationships, and childhood wounds can cause even more strife. “Being around family can be like a pressure cooker for uncomfortable, painful, and activating feelings,” she tells us. “This all increases stress, anxiety, depression, and shame.”

While some might struggle with challenging relationships, others might struggle with a lack of connection altogether. “Loneliness is truly an epidemic in our country, and the holidays often shine a bright light on individuals struggling with social isolation,” says Laurel.

Additionally, the holidays can be a painful reminder of loss — whether due to death, divorce, or otherwise broken relationships. “For many people, the holidays are a reminder of loss and grief instead of joy,” says Onsite Clinical Coordinator Kara Leigh Prichard. “When these painful emotions are at the forefront … it can be an isolating experience.”


If you tend to paint a picture of the “perfect” holiday in your mind, only to be let down — you’re not the only one. “Expectations of the holiday season loom heavy everywhere we look,” says Leslie Crowley, a therapist and Onsite’s Clinical Specialist. “It can be hard to admit when the holidays don’t align with cultural or personal expectations. From getting the perfect family photo to finding the ideal gift to longing for an interaction with a strained family member, we can easily be swept up in unspoken, unacknowledged, or unrealistic holiday expectations.”

The reality is that there’s a lot of pressure to participate, and that level of participation doesn’t fit everyone’s personality, comfort level, or state of mind. “There is an over-emphasis on being happy, merry, and giving during this time of the year,” says Leslie. “It’s hard to deal with our mental health issues when one is bogged down with loneliness and isolation and the pressure of trying to fit a societal mold that isn’t necessarily obtainable.”


It’s no secret that finances can be a stressor, holidays or not. In fact, a 2018 Everyday Health United States of Stress survey ranked financial anxiety as the number-one stressor across all age groups — over half of the people surveyed (52%) said economic woes regularly stressed them.

The team at Onsite adds that financial worries increase around the holidays. As a result, many people spend money they don’t have on gifts, gatherings, travel, and more. Moreover, that stress has been linked to various mental and physical symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches, fatigue, digestive issues, compromised immune systems, and an overall feeling of overwhelm.

8 Ways to Care for Yourself When the Holidays Get Hard

We may not be able to avoid hard holiday-related feelings altogether, but there are certainly ways to care for ourselves during this time. The Onsite team suggests the following:

#1: Lighten your calendar.

Holiday burnout is real. “Even a calendar full of ‘good events’ can come at the expense of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being,” says Kara Leigh. “A sense of urgency and overscheduling during this season pulls us out of presence with ourselves. We don’t take the time to care for ourselves or check in on our state of health.”

Being selective about the people, places, and things that are most deserving of your time and attention will allow you to be present for the most soul-filling and memorable events.

#2: Don’t ignore your own needs.

Kara Leigh adds that it can be easy to ignore our own needs at the expense of meeting expectations. When we view this time of year as a “season of giving,” we sometimes let it overshadow our own well-being. The Onsite team suggests that a good first step is acknowledging your feelings and permitting yourself to feel whatever you feel. It’s also crucial not to lose sight of the methods of self-care you employ during the rest of the year — abandoning healthy habits and overindulging can add to feelings of stress and guilt.

#3: Make a plan in advance.

The Onsite team warns against being caught off guard. Set a general plan for the season by reflecting on your priorities, non-negotiables, what brings you happiness, and what emotionally drains you.

#4: Feel your feelings. (Really.)

Give yourself permission to be where you are and feel what you feel, whether you feel happy, or not. “Denying how we’re feeling seems like an excellent way to cope,” says Mickenzie Vought, Onsite’s Editorial and Community Director, “and while it may keep us from engaging with negative emotions, it also robs us of our ability to engage with positive emotions. “

#5: Check your ‘yes.’

Don’t give away your ‘yes’ without weighing its importance. It can be tough to say no — to a party or gift exchange, to preparing a complicated dish, or even running an errand for a friend. But being selective about your promises can make all the difference in carving time out to breathe, relax, and soak in the season without being overwhelmed.

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#6: Communicate your boundaries (and stick to them).

Be clear. Be kind. Be honest. Many of us fear that setting boundaries will cause friends and family to think badly of us. However, a lack of boundaries can harm us (and them!) in the long run. Boundaries tell us where we end and others begin, allowing us to prioritize our own well-being. Give yourself the grace and space to set appropriate boundaries, and don’t hold yourself accountable for someone else’s response to them.

“Make sure to communicate the limitations and boundaries you’re setting around your time, finances, and relational expectations this season,” Mickenzie tells us. “Of course, you are not responsible for [someone else’s] reactions. However, when they are established and kept, boundaries promote healthy relationships — even if, at first, it seems like they might be a hindrance.”

#7: Lean on your family of choice.

The holidays are a time to connect with those who make you feel safe, such as family. And not all family is related by blood. Mickenzie says, “Isolation is at an all-time high during the holidays. Reach out to the safe people in your life. If you have strained family relationships or cannot be with your nuclear family during the holiday season, make a plan with your family of choice.”

#8: Rethink traditions.

From your holiday decor to what’s on the menu, the holidays hold a special space for tradition. “If, for some reason, you’re unable to partake in all the same traditions, or those traditions no longer serve you,” offers Mickenzie, “you have the invitation to rethink and recreate traditions.”

We hope you accept the call for a slower season, if that gives you peace. “Make the cookies. Play the games. Go for a walk in the winter wonderland. Create a slower pace. Have deep, meaningful conversations. Find quiet space and soak in the magic of the season,” says Mickenzie. We couldn’t agree more.