Coping with a demanding holiday season


Q: How can I find ways to avoid the excesses and craziness that accompany the holidays? 

This is a question relevant to many, whether you think of yourself as a holiday scrooge, a holiday elf or somewhere in between. Perhaps the issue is not so much about avoiding the excesses and craziness — because it will be tricky to do so unless you flee to a deserted island — and more about how to manage sanely. 

Common expectations people face this time of year: (1) The expectation to socialize with holiday cheer during literally the darkest time of year, when our bodies are most inclined to nest; (2) The expectation to spend money on the perfect gift(s), which can be complicated even for those with disposable income; (3) The expectation to be around relatives, perhaps even traveling far and wide to see them during a time when the weather is most precarious. Uff da!

Expectation #1: Just say no. Or rather, no thank you. As humans we are capable of doing anything, but not capable of doing everything. If you don’t have energy for a multitude of social activities, pick and choose. If you’re worn down, own it and RSVP that you’d love to schedule a get together in the new year. Less energy given to the exhausting facade that you love being a social butterfly during the winter holidays means more energy for dealing with other things, such as expectation #2 and #3.

Expectation #2: Manage the gift buying rigamarole by utilizing free online shipping or going the gift card route. I think there’s no shame in re-gifting, which is a type of recycling after all! Of course this can backfire, as exemplified by my father re-gifting a bottle of scotch to my uncle, the very person who gave it to him several Christmas’s earlier. I think drawing names for gifts is a brilliant idea and typically means a more thoughtful gift. A potentially inexpensive gift idea might be found in that crafty part of you. This is a good idea particularly if you’re not naturally inclined to be creative. Tapping into your creative brain, or “right brain,” can offset the overanalyzing “left brain” stuck on the holiday to-do list.

Expectation #3: Our minds are time travelers and as we anticipate the holidays we might get mentally transplanted to the best and worst memories from childhood. For some, spending time with relatives or early caregivers can trigger our inner 12 year-old. It need not have been a history of significant trauma, even small grievances from the past can resurrect during the pressure-filled holiday season. These gatherings are loaded enough as it is so I suggest you practice the art of refraining. Thanksgiving dinner filled with everyone from your great aunt to your stepbrother will likely not be the best place to receive the apology or the forgiveness you’re looking for. Schedule a couple extra sessions with your therapist or get on the yoga mat to help you calm your reactivity, at least until after the holidays when you can give these wounds more mindful attention.

Ultimately, if we “unwrap” the concept of the holidays, there is a gift inside. At the core, it’s about ritual and gratitude.

Ritual: Pick and choose the rituals you liked from your past. If you didn’t have any, what better time to create rituals that align with who you are today. Two of my favorite holiday traditions include watching the movie “Love Actually” and listening to David Sedaris’ audio book “Holidays on Ice.” I’m guaranteed laughs as I hear Sedaris describe his stint as an elf for Santa at Macy’s. These simple rituals I’ve created give me something to look forward to and honor my need for humor during a frenzied time of year.

Gratitude: Reframe the idea of excess and see it more as an opportunity to recognize your abundance and privilege. In our “never enough” consumer culture, it can be hard to see just how much we have and how little we may need. Think “season of giving.” Research suggests those who embody this concept, particularly those who partake in random acts of kindness year ‘round, are happier people.

If all else fails, remember the Buddhist tenet that everything is impermanent. January 1st will roll around eventually and we’ll go on our merry way into a new year.

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at Send questions to