Strategies for Managing Holiday Stress

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The holiday season is thought to be a time of joy, but in reality it is difficult for many people. San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard, MFT offers strategies for getting through the holidays.

During the holidays, everything is focused on home, family, and joy, but when you are lacking these things or going through some kind of loss, it can be a painful time.

We are conditioned to believe that the holiday season is the happiest time of the year--but for many it’s a stressful and difficult time. The good news is there are ways to cope with the holidays in ways which minimize stress and can make them enjoyable.

“During the holidays, everything is focused on home, family, and joy, but when you are lacking these things or going through some kind of loss, it can be a painful time,” says San Francisco therapist Michael Halyard, MFT.

Halyard is a San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and can be found on the websites and

“Shorter darker days, cold rainy weather, unrealistic expectations, strained family relationships, demands of socializing, overeating, too much sugar, not enough sleep, lack of exercise, financial difficulties, commercialism, holiday crowds, and extra traffic--can all add to the malaise,” reveals Halyard.

This is a time when we are expected to be spending time with partners, family and friends, going to parties and gatherings--but for people recently out of a relationship, without families, or whose friends who are far away or preoccupied with their own families, it can be a lonely time.

“It is important to remember that you’re not alone…there are people all around you, and social and volunteer organizations that would love to have you. It’s a great time of the year to make new friends, try new activities, and create some new traditions…the point is to have joy in your life,” says Halyard.

It can also be stressful for people who lack money to buy presents for friends and family, but taking the time to make a homemade card or write a note of gratitude of your appreciation means so much more.

Halyard says much of the problem is in people's expectations, due at least in part to the media portrayal of the Holidays. “Unfortunately the holidays are not all they're cracked up to be. American culture continues to promote the image of the happy intact family with the white picket fence. Television and movie depictions of the holidays are of perfect families having fun, enjoying their holidays together. These media images are often a sharp contrast to our own family and can exacerbate and trigger feelings of sadness and loss.”

The truth is, however that the perfect family doesn’t exist--even those families that are intact with the ‘white picket fence’ have their share of problems. Blended families are also common, and finding the time to spend with different sets of parents can be stressful. Harder still, the first holiday without a loved-one can be especially difficult.

“Thorough planning, exercising, eating and drinking in moderation, having realistic expectations, setting and sticking to a budget, and getting emotional support will go a long way to help alleviate holiday stress,” adds Halyard.

Emotional support is the best antidote for holiday stress says Halyard. “Whether from your friends, community groups, a 12-step group, or a therapist, getting emotional support will help you cope with the stress of the holidays, and support you in your goals, whether that’s keeping you sober or maintaining a healthy diet.”

Not over-committing yourself during the holidays in social activities and self-imposed tasks like decorating will also help to reduce your stress. It’s okay to say ‘no’ and not attend parties or family gatherings. You can also choose to do simple things like going to the movies…it’s the time of the year when the best movies come out, and the movies offer a healthy escape.

“These are your holidays--make them what you want them to be. Don’t spend time doing things you don’t want to do. Don’t spend the holidays with your family if you know you’re going to be miserable. Make plans to see the people you care about, have a pot-luck for your friends, a night out at your favorite restaurant, or a quiet visit with a friend. Celebrate the holidays any way you feel like it and be at peace with that. If you don’t know what to do for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, invite your friends over for a holiday celebration...With a little planning and positive thinking, you can enjoy the holidays more than you ever thought you could,” explains Halyard.

“If you think negatively towards the holidays, you’re going to feel negatively towards the holidays. If you think of the holidays as a chance to get some time off from work, some time to spend with friends and celebrate your friendships, you will see the holidays as a good thing! The good news is the holidays aren’t going to last forever--they’ll be over before you know it. Try to enjoy the holidays this year. Also, seek professional help if you find yourself feeling depressed-- psychotherapy can make for a Happier New Year,” adds Halyard.

Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his San Francisco private practice. He can be found on the websites and

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