Holidays, Stress, and Coping with the Madness

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While the holidays are often filled with joy, it can be a difficult time for those who have strained relationships with family. Even the healthiest relationships experience added strain from the extra stressors of the holiday season—from frantic travel to financial concerns. This holiday season will likely be especially tense given the recent divisive election. For many with opinions that conflict with the opinions of family members, holiday gatherings and discussions are no longer a source of joy, but rather a source of contention and dread.


Stress is typically higher than usual during the holidays, and research shows that being aware of our stress can help us cope. This sounds counterintuitive, but low-level stress often puts us into a bad mood without an awareness of why. On the other hand, with somewhat higher stress, we are aware of the added stress and can adequately compensate for its negative effects. We are generally able to self-correct for the effects of a bad mood when reminded of the added stress and its effects.[1]


According to Dr. Sherryl Goodman, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology, we should remember that everyone generally wants to have good, positive experiences, no matter how it may feel in tense moments. Dr. Goodman also cautions that individuals often set unrealistic expectations for family gatherings and special holidays, which can often lead to disappointment and frustration. Most of us fall victim to unrealistic expectations for the holidays; endless holiday movies, nostalgic childhood memories, and the tendency to remember the past as being more positive than it truly was only adds to this problem.[2]

Expectations of the holiday season are important. Low expectations can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, expecting to have a fight with our cousin might influence a negative attitude, which might in turn promote negative discussion leading to a fight. As Dr. Goodman notes, expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment. Bearing this in mind, expectations that are moderately positive are often harbingers of happiness during the holidays. A helpful mantra to keep in mind during the coming weeks comes from a text used in Alcoholics Anonymous and quoted by psychologists alike: The Serenity Prayer.

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference…”[3]


While The Serenity Prayer does make reference to God, for some people, an alternative interpretation is that the power to grant that serenity is within each of us rather than in God. With this advice in mind, happy holidays! I hope you enjoy this time with loved ones while also practicing plenty of self-care.


1: Tesser, A., & Beach, S. R. (1998). Life events, relationship quality, and depression: an investigation of judgment discontinuity in vivo. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 36.

2: Kennedy, Q., Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2004). The role of motivation in the age-related positivity effect in autobiographical memory. Psychological Science, 15(3), 208-214.

3: Niebuhr, R. (1950). The serenity prayer. The Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine.

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