Joy during the holidays: Why it can be difficult, and how we can help ourselves find it

The holidays. Widely accepted as the most wonderful time of the year! While the holiday season brings warmth and happiness for many, it can also bring the anticipation of increased social commitments, family expectations, financial stressors, and a decrease in needed daily routines to name a few.

As much joy as we anticipate and truly want to experience this time of year, the uncomfortable reality is, the holidays can be challenging on our mental health.

Why can finding joy be so difficult during the holidays?

The holiday season gifts us with a healthy dose of all the feels– stress, happiness, sadness, excitement, and everything in between. Though this strong emotional experience is common, it isn’t often openly portrayed or discussed. Many people find themselves feeling a sense of isolation, questioning their experience of the holidays when those around them appear to be experiencing only warmth and delight. Know you are not alone in these feelings!

Experiencing emotional dysregulation around the holidays is a completely normal occurrence. An American Psychological Association study found 38% of people experienced heightened stress and negatively affected moods at the holidays. Even more notably, a National Alliance of Mental Health Study found 64% of people experiencing a mental health diagnosis reported their conditions worsened around the holidays. 

It might be comforting to know the contributing factors to many individuals’ emotional distress around the holidays are often equally universal. Many of us may relate, difficulty finding joy this time of year can be a combination of the following:

  • Increased obligations during the holiday season, causing extra financial and scheduling pressure.
  • Increased lack of routines and resulting disorganization, particularly problematic for those with young kids.
  • Set expectations about how the holidays will feel, though we can’t accurately predict how things will go or how others will respond to and influence us. When the holiday experience doesn’t go as planned or live up to expectations, we can experience stress and profound disappointment.
  • Struggles with shifts in family structure or systems – a newborn, kids growing older or going their own ways. A first Christmas after a family loss, marital separation, or custody changes all greatly affect our emotional experience of the holidays.
  • Time together with extended family may result in taking on your childhood role, not everyone (including yourself) will be happy with those dynamics. It’s not unusual to find yourself triggered in these family moments. 

How do we help ourselves find joy during the holidays? 

  • Be kind to yourself.  Allow all the feelings, good and bad, to come in rather than trying to force the feelings we are told we “should” have. Normalize the experience of strong emotions and holiday blues – evidence suggests you have plenty of company navigating emotional distress this time of year.
  • Set boundaries around time obligations and traditions. Be honest with yourself about your limits and needs so you can communicate them clearly with your loved ones in a way that feels calm, comfortable and honest.
  • Be aware of intentions for yourself, and expectations of the holidays. Let go of perfectionism around hosting, gifting (particularly beyond your means) and getting it all done. Redirect your energy into being present with yourself and loved ones knowing those will moments will surpass the superficial.
  • Ask yourself what you love about the holidays, embrace those aspects, and minimize what doesn’t serve your mental and physical health. Don’t be ruled by holiday traditions in the past – you can reinvent what works for you individually, and for your family!
  • For those feeling lonely at the holiday due to loss or other life circumstances, reach out to others – no matter how difficult that first step. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and give others the opportunity to show their care. Many of us are looking for community this time of year and will benefit equally from the connection.
  • Prioritize your daily health habits and needs around sleep, exercise, and general self care.   

Therapy is as important as ever this time of year!

When life becomes busy at the holidays, therapy and other self care can fall by the wayside to accommodate changing schedules. Though it may be difficult, lean in to therapy this time of year despite your busy schedule or even dread of discussing holiday/family stress. Know your therapist anticipates the emotional and logistical complications that come with this time of year and is ready to help you process and work though them.

Therapy during the holidays can provide an opportunity to not just let the additional stressors get to you, but to get out in front of them.

Joy at the holidays is possible! With support, you can exercise the tools to be in the moment, acknowledge your emotions amidst the hustle, and make time for yourself and loved ones in a way that works for you. Prioritizing your mental health can help you find a path to feeling centered and experiencing the joy we anticipate and deserve this holiday season.

About the author: Natalie Baumgartner, LMFT

Natalie is a practicing therapist in Oregon with Cyti Psychological. Natalie has a masters degree in Couples and Family Therapy from the University of Oregon College of Education, and over 15 years of experience as a practitioner in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Her clinical focus includes individuals, couples and families presenting with anxiety, mood and eating disorders, processing life transitions, postpartum mental health concerns, and healing from separation and relationship trauma.

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741