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Strategies to Break 'Holiday Stress Syndrome'

Dwight Bain


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A recent USA Today poll asked this question, “Which best fits your holiday emotional state?”

·         Relaxed -       18%
·         Joyful -           31%
·         Stressed -      27%
·         Depressed - 24%

Why do people feel so overloaded with additional problems during the holidays? I believe the majority of the pressure they feel is from trying to live up to unrealistic expectations of creating a ‘perfect’ Christmas.

Remember Clark W. Griswald from the movie ‘Christmas Vacation?’ He is the laughable, but best illustration of a guy who tries to do everything right, only to have literally everything go wrong. Dysfunctional relatives, one blown bulb derailing all of the decorations, the Christmas tree goes up in flames, the turkey is dry, the check for the swimming pool is going to bounce, add in a crazy cousin kidnapping the hateful boss, while the dog destroys the house chasing a rabid squirrel and a senile senior citizen sings the national anthem and you have the whole 9 yards of Christmas chaos.

The movie makes us laugh because there are elements that hold true in many holiday customs that everyone follows. Traditions that may not have much to do with faith, or even common sense, but that still become a passionate pursuit for millions of people desperately seeking the perfect holiday. Holiday stress doesn’t create perfection or peace, but it does take the focus off the simple message of the Christ child to put it onto a thousand other things that don’t have much to do with Christmas at all.

The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day will motivate people to feel really good or really bad without many people left in-between the two extremes. The focus of this holiday special report is for those who find themselves stuck on the in-between level to not slide into a major holiday depression and lose the true joy that Christmas was meant to bring.

Making the Holiday’s More Miserable

The holidays can make depressed people feel worse, people with addictions to have more cravings, worried people turn into a bundle of nerves and sadly it’s the time of year that many give up on their mental and physical health because they are just too "busy" to take care of themselves. The solution is not to ignore Thanksgiving or Christmas but rather to realize it is imperative to set holiday boundaries. 

People may not understand the words “holiday boundary” a therapist friend of mine describes it as "a line during the holiday’s that marks a limit". She believes that depression, cravings for substances and anxiety symptoms all worsen between Thanksgiving and New Years Day because people are unable to say "no" to all of the extra demands on their time, money, and energy.  Bottom line- the holidays don’t bring gifts to some people, it just brings them more problems and stress.

Since they don't want to offend or hurt the feelings of their family and friends they keep silent and tolerate situations or endure guilt-ridden obligations that only occur during the holidays. Sometimes that silent tolerance makes a complex situation much worse, while all of this dysfunction steals the real joy the holidays were meant to bring.

It is Essential to Take Care of Yourself by Having the Courage to Set Boundaries

Over spending is common during the holiday season - people go into major debt to create a temporary feeling of “happiness”. You can set limits on spending because it’s not necessary to try to stimulate the entire economy by buying an online gift for every relative, neighbor and postman in your neighborhood. It is okay to say “No” and remember that giving your "presence" is often a much more thoughtful gift than just sending "presents."

Did you know the average American will gain six pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years? That’s a pound per week! You are allowed to say “No” to overeating or over drinking at holiday parties and you are allowed to keep a healthy lifestyle pattern with exercise and especially sleep. Many people starve themselves of sleep by trying to decorate, wrap or travel 20 hours per day. It is dangerous to be sleep deprived and can be as life threatening as drinking and driving… don’t do it!  Emotional eating, skipping sleep or losing self-control with alcohol will hurt your health and destroy the joy of Christmas since indulgence doesn’t bring out the best in you, and often fills the holidays with more pain and problems for everyone in your family. Bad trade.

Holiday boundaries can keep you and your family safe and stress-free when you enforce them. Good trade.

How to Break Out of the Holiday Stress Syndrome?

Have you ever watched someone have a “melt down” during the holidays?  If you aren’t familiar with this expression, (which I learned from our teenagers), it means to be so totally stressed you can’t think or function normally. So, back to understanding why people ‘melt down or stress out during the holidays’ since this self-destructive process steals motivation and makes life miserable. It makes no sense. Why would people make impulsive choices during Christmas vacation that makes their life worse? Even more important is to spot the cycle that steals energy and creativity?

Here are some strategies to show how ignoring basic boundaries can lead to a bad case of holiday stress. Good news, once you figure out the formula to break this dysfunctional syndrome you can learn to do the opposite, which will allow you to enjoy every day of the holiday season, instead of feeling miserable from only enduring it. 

The Blueprint That Leads to “Holiday Stress Syndrome”

First understand there really is a process to create a total “Holiday Meltdown” experience where life goes from bad to worse. It follows a series of predictable steps. People suffering from Holiday Stress have conditioned themselves to follow a pattern of behavior that makes every day of the Christmas season chaotic and potentially every holiday tradition a catastrophe.

They never allow themselves to relax and count blessings during the holidays because their total focus is on pleasing others. They don’t actually have good days, just less miserable ones where nothing goes right because they usually are looking for the worst possible scenario. It’s like the old saying, “Cheer up - things could get worse. So I cheered up and sure enough, things got worse.” 

If the only things you are searching for are more problems this time of year then you can be sure that you will find more than enough to stay stressed out and afraid. Here are the basics of the ‘holiday stress’ which I have mapped out in a reverse blueprint process and remember the more elements of this blueprint you have in place between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, the worse you will feel and the worse your decisions will be - guaranteed.

Spiritual Strategies to Create Significant Emptiness and Build More Stress

1) Ignore God and anything that would inspire you to see beyond yourself. No Bible reading, no prayer, no journaling or meditation about the blessings of your life, which would stimulate gratitude. Avoid any type of function that takes you out of your own world or that might make you aware of the greater needs in the rest of the world. Even though you are doing many religious things, mostly focus on yourself while ignoring everyone else.

2) Skip going to any peaceful church or concert where you might find quiet inspiration to focus on hectic shopping malls. Make sure to skip any activity that places you around positive or prayerful people. This includes helping the homeless or reaching out to other families who may be facing tough times this Christmas season. As long as you stay focused on yourself and your problems you can feel empty, afraid and alone which will worsen the Holiday Stress.
Media Noise to Block the Real Message of the Season

1)    Focus on the evening news and current events, especially big tragedies or government problems you can’t do anything about. This approach is guaranteed to discourage you with negative media messages which often are full of depressing images that discourage you with a continual flood of bad news. That way you are focused on everything except the birth of Jesus. This focus on bad news can speed feeling worse from a major case of Holiday Stress.

2)    Make Hollywood celebrities your main focus, especially if they have multi-million dollar lifestyles that you could never hope to obtain. Keep up with the drama of every tiny detail of their lives; in fact spend more time studying what is happening in the lives of famous strangers this Christmas season than you do in understanding what is happening in your own family life.

Physical Steps to Fuel the Holiday Stress

1)    Ignore your own health. You can do this faster by neglecting to get enough sleep. Push your body to the limits and never sit still to take quiet times to just sit and rest. Follow the rule that ‘burning out is better than rusting out.’ (Forgetting that either way- you are just out)

2)    Stay idle. Sit totally still on the couch and watch TV or the Internet; but never exercise or move around. In fact, stay inside most of the time and never allow yourself to see sunshine or feel the wind on your face over the holiday break. Nature is to be considered evil because being outside often reminds people of the beauty of creation. Use amusing entertainment to replace all forms of physical fitness in God’s creation.

3)    Eat anything you want, especially large portions of comfort food like cakes, pies, candy and cookies followed by soda with lots of sugar and caffeine. Remember the rule - the worse the food is for you, the worse you will feel.  Avoid anything healthy or nutritious if you want to suffer for months from Holiday Stress.

Emotional and Financial Methods to make it worse

1)    Keep all your fears inside and never take time to release pressure in healthy ways. No journaling, no mapping out insecurities on paper to prevent feeling panic. And make sure to never set goals that would give you a positive point of view in facing the future. Stuff your stress to ruin your day and make you a mess by trying to use money to manage mood in you and your family.

2)    Don’t ever set a holiday budget or create a realistic financial spending plan for gifts– in fact, just let your financial obligations pile up until you feel like you are drowning in debt and financial fears come January. Not having any idea where you stand financially is sure to make you feel worse and prolong the Holiday Stress well into the springtime.

3)    Never tell anyone what keeps you up at night, in fact, avoid any coach, counselor, pastor, priest, family member, co-worker or friend who might be a safe person who could help you process your fears to find greater strength. Go it alone to improve your chances of feeling miserable as a mistletoe martyr.

How Do Successful People ‘snap out of it’ to Find New Energy for the New Year?

Can you relate to feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, empty, lonely, unloved, stressed, depressed or afraid during the holidays? Then you have likely followed the “Holiday Stress Syndrome” (HSS) Formula, but don’t feel bad because most people have some degree of trying to please others which drives them toward tolerating irresponsible behavior instead of confronting it and holding the other people accountable. This is why so many people can relate to this step by step guide on Holiday Stress. 

Some of my worst holidays were spent with a dark cloud of moodiness overhead that I made worse by following the following strategies for more Holiday Stress. I was too focused on me, myself and I instead of honestly looking at the challenges directly or seeking outside help to cope.

Successful people have learned to identify the ‘Holiday Stress Syndrome’ so they can make rapid adjustments to feel better fast. The real problem is when you feel so exhausted and beat up by unrealistic schedules that tomorrow look’s worse than yesterday and forget about New Year Resolutions! So what about you -do you wake up refreshed this time of year with positive energy to face a new day or do you live exhausted and ‘stressed out’ day after day?  

Moving from Being ‘Stressed Out’ to Feeling Strong Again

Successful people take positive action to break the pattern that creates ‘Holiday Stress Syndrome’. Everyone faces challenges and tough days but some face them with strength by doing the opposite of the formula listed above. I’ve seen people try it both ways, and ruin some day of their life because of being so moody. Thankfully if you have healthy people around you they can confront you with verbal boundaries so you can change. People who say, ‘snap out of it’, ‘get on track’, ‘you were meant for more than this and Christmas is bigger than your pity-party right now.’

Do you have someone who comes alongside to challenge you with positive steps to break the ‘Holiday Stress Syndrome?’ On your worst days do you go it alone, or allow safe people to come close and help? If you don’t have those people know that my purpose in life is to add value to others, so until you believe in you, I’ll believe in you. God placed you on this planet for greater things than you could ever imagine!

Please let today be the day you break the ‘Holiday Stress Syndrome’ process to really embrace feeling good. No matter what you are facing today, you will face it better by doing the opposite of the blueprint listed above so you can develop spiritual, emotional, financial and physical strength. You really do have the power to change and make today better. Choose to set some boundaries and break the cycle and when you do, tell others what you learned so they can break out of the ‘Holiday Stress Syndrome’ … and then you both can worship together with a heart of gratitude instead of just having more heartburn and grief. 

Reprinted with permission from the LifeWorks Group weekly eNews, (Copyright, 2004-2011), To subscribe to this valuable counseling and coaching resource visit or call 407-647-7005.

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About The Author


Dwight Bain is dedicated to helping people achieve greater results. He is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Certified Life Coach in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change. Order Dwight's book, Destination Success: A Map for Living Out Your Dreams.