6 Common Holiday Triggers, and How Experts Recommend Coping

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?
written by CAMMI YARRIS
Source: Liza Summer | Pexels
Source: Liza Summer | Pexels

It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” so why are there so many holiday triggers? Families come together, gifts and food are abundant, and memories are made, but it’s also dark by 5 p.m., the weather outside is frightful, and a busy calendar mixed with work deadlines feels overwhelming. Not to mention that this time of year can actually bring up a lot of painful feelings, anxiety, and stress. Sure the holidays might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it also may be the most sad, stressful, or difficult. Whether your stress starts at Thanksgiving or you’re hit with post-holiday sadness after New Year’s Day, read on for expert tips on how to cope and get through the season enjoyably. Bonus: for more support, check out top neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez on The Everygirl Podcast

If you’re feeling pressure or exhaustion thinking about the season…

You are probably expecting way too much. “The holidays are so stressful because there are a lot of ‘shoulds’ placed around them,” explained Chloe Ballatore, a relationship and communications expert and author. “Holidays have rituals, or repetitive activities, so really think through if doing these activities are serving your own best interests.” With the holidays approaching, identify where you think you “should” do something and if you’re doing it for any other reason than it makes you happy or you want to do it. Respect your own happiness over expectations and try not to do anything because you feel like you “should” do them. 

On The Everygirl Podcast, Dr. Hafeez emphasized that coping with stress during the holiday season should look about the same as coping with stress during any other time of year. “You don’t have to say yes to every single event,” she said. “The best advice for the holidays is what my advice would be for the rest of the year: in order to carve out time for yourself, you actually have to prioritize yourself.” If you’re dealing with burnout or exhaustion this holiday season, setting boundaries around your personal time and saying no can go a long way.

If you have a negative relationship with food… 

Whether it’s Friendsgiving, gift exchanges, Hanukkah, or Christmas dinner, holiday gatherings often revolve around food. For those with any kind of negative relationship with food or even a medically restrictive diet, the focus on food can be triggering. Tayler Silfverduk, a registered dietician who specializes in disordered eating, advised being aware of food pushers, which are people who do not take “no” for an answer when offering food (even if it’s a well-intentioned aunt or grandparent), which can be highly triggering.

If you need to, remind your family that your body and eating habits aren’t up for discussion. Overall, eat mindfully, have a game plan if you know you’ll have limited food options (like bringing a hearty side dish to eat for your main course if you don’t eat turkey), and consistently remind yourself that nourishment should be pleasurable—stress about food is worse for your body than any Christmas cookie or cup of eggnog. 

If family get-togethers are triggering…

Maybe you don’t get along with certain family members or maybe your family events can just be draining. Maybe you have family members who do not agree with your political or core beliefs, argue through every get-together, or make you feel stressed/pressured. Missy McCrickard, an energy healer, breathwork facilitator, and well-being coach, suggested setting boundaries with your family members or removing yourself from the situation altogether. It’s OK to say “No thank you” or “I can’t engage in this conversation.” When setting boundaries, let your family know the boundaries beforehand so they know what will or will not happen when you are together. You can also let them know you will remove yourself from the situation if you do not feel respected or comfortable. 

One common familial dynamic that brings up lots of questions during the holiday season is in-laws, an area in which Dr. Hafeez has lots of helpful advice. She recommends addressing any stress or difficulties with your partner first, in order to communicate fully with your partner and avoid potentially awkward or damaging conflicts with in-laws. Approaching interactions with in-laws with curiosity, boundaries, and kindness during the holidays can make potentially challenging situations far less triggering. 

If you feel lonely during the holidays…

Whether this time of year reminds you of family members who are no longer with us or the season is a reminder that you don’t have the relationship or family you want, the holidays can feel lonely. Dr. Rebecca Leslie, a psychologist and owner of Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, said that connecting in whatever way feels fulfilling to you is the most important thing to do when you’re feeling lonely. Set up Friendsgiving, gift exchanges, or get-togethers (even if they’re virtual) with people who make you feel loved and supported.

“If you’re feeling alone, know that you are not alone in feeling that way,” Dr. Leslie said. “Try to be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion.” Talk to yourself as you would your best friend or little sister, spend time with your favorite hobbies, books, people, and movies, and say ‘no’ to anything that doesn’t make you happier. Practicing self-compassion and fostering connection can help ease loneliness.

If you’re sober during the holidays…

If you find that many holiday traditions rooted in a partying or drinking environment feel triggering, set boundaries and seek support. Beth Bowen LMSW, a coach for alcohol-free and sober-curious women, suggested managing your physical, mental, and emotional energy by making sure you are getting extra sleep, turning down invitations to events you don’t want to attend, fueling your body with nutritious food, and exercising regularly. These practices can help you feel grounded so you can make choices that help your body feel best. If you feel uncomfortable being sober in an alcohol-focused environment, bring your own non-alcoholic beverage or perfect your non-alcoholic order so you can have something tasty and celebratory. This can be a mocktail, non-alcoholic beer/wine, or something like sparkling water. 

Dr. Hafeez is a huge advocate for bringing your own non-alcoholic beverage in case you’re concerned about the availability of booze-free beverages at a holiday event. “If you’re having a sober holiday, bring something so you feel like you have a glass in your hand,” she said. She also points out how important it is to be supportive of friends and family who might not want to engage with alcohol during this time of year. Respecting boundaries and showing support by offering non-alcoholic drinks when hosting will always be appreciated. 

If you are financially stressed during the holidays…

While this season should be more about spending time with loved ones than spending money, we often like to show our love with gifts. Beyond our shopping list, we spend money on new outfits, food and drinks to bring to parties, travel expenses, etc., which can all really add up. “First and foremost, remember you are not alone,” said Sara Kuburic, a holiday triggers psychotherapist, consultant, writer, and columnist. “Stick to your budget, be honest with people you are spending time with, and find traditions that are more affordable or free.”

Good news: Gifting doesn’t have to break the bank. Homemade gifts like jewelry, candles, or art can help erase some of the expenses and can even be more personal and thoughtful than a store-bought gift. Lastly, while it can be a bummer to say “no,” try setting boundaries around foregoing gift exchanges or events that cause you more financial stress than enjoyment. Instead, make plans with loved ones for activities that won’t cost a lot of money (and stress): a virtual catch-up, movie night at home, walking around the neighborhood to look at the lights, or a potluck and BYOB dinner (so you’re not in charge of providing all the food and drinks). 

And no matter what you feel triggered by…

Practicing consistent self-care is crucial all year long, but especially during extra stressful or triggering times like this season. “Make a schedule every day so you can plan ahead and schedule in ways to care for yourself,” suggested Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a celebrity psychologist, keynote speaker, and author. “Determine which days will be particularly demanding and plan self-care activities before, during, or after those days.” Also, when you feel triggered in the moment, have a game plan. Try grounding yourself by taking 10 deep breaths from your belly, journaling, venting to a trusted loved one, or any other coping skills you have in your toolbox.

“All of this advice for the holidays really applies year-long,” Dr. Hafeez advised. “If you practice self-care all year, your holidays next year will be even easier.” Lastly, you should not be triggered, struggling, or coping alone. Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist. 

Anxiety and depression can feel isolating, but you shouldn’t have to feel as though you’re going through it alone. Please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Crisis Textline: text CONNECT to 741741

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.