Managing Expectations over the Holidays

Person holding Christmas lights. The lighting is dramatic.
As the year is coming to an end and the holiday season is just a few weeks away, many people are getting ready to spend meaningful time with family, friends, and loved ones. While getting the house ready with festive decorations, cooking big meals, and gift giving can be enjoyable moments, how come the holidays can be stressful? A lot of families set high expectations to have the ‘perfect’ holiday season, and this can lead to a lot of unwarranted pressure.

What Causes Holiday Stress?

During the holiday season, there may be several events or get togethers that you are invited to. They can be family related, friend related, or religious related. It can quickly become overwhelming, trying to find the time to attend every party or event. On the other hand, you may be feeling like you haven’t been invited to enough parties which can also cause stress.
A lot of people feel obligated to cram in every tradition and attend every event to make sure the holiday season is memorable. However, when individuals add in the financial burden of the holiday season, travelling, visiting family members, past and present relationships, health and current events, stress can pile up quickly. Furthermore, a lot of these events are out of your control which can interfere with your vision of the perfect holiday season leading to more stress and unhappiness.
Lastly, the holidays can be a difficult time for anyone who has lost friends or family members over the past year. The memory of loss and carrying on traditions without the loved one can make it harder for individuals to cope with the holiday season.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations for yourself can improve your life and well-being. It involves setting standards and boundaries by being honest about what you can accomplish in a specific timeframe and not spreading yourself ‘too thin’. Having realistic expectations can help you improve your life while making the most out of it.
The key to coping is being realistic about your expectations for the holiday season. Finances can be a major source of stress during the holidays, and it is important to write down your budget for gifts, travel, holiday traditions, and anticipated expenses. By setting a budget and allocating a certain amount of money for unforeseeable expenses, this can help mitigate stress. However, it is easy to overspend, which invariably leads to regret and difficulty later, so sticking to your budget the best you can, can really help.
Travelling for the holiday season is often complicated and such complications have been exacerbated post pandemic as we saw last year. Families today are geographically separated more than ever and have possibly not seen each other in years. Stress with travel often comes from juggling multiple holiday events in a short time frame. Whether you’re flying, driving, or taking a train, weather can impact travel which is out of your control. It is important to speak to your friends or loved ones about what you can realistically do for your schedule and have a backup plan put in place if necessary. It is important to prioritize events as you are able while allowing adequate time for safe travel to avoid increasing stress. By doing this, you are changing your mindset and reducing the pressure of feeling that you must be in two, sometimes three, places at once which can often take the fun out of any event.

Navigating Social Situations

First, it is not feasible to avoid social situations entirely, so it is crucial to be equipped to handle them. For example, it is okay to be selective in which social situations you attend. It is okay to decline events or situations that pose a risk to your goals. If you choose to attend, this can also include having an exit plan, which can give you the freedom to leave when you want, without having to wait for others. Second, have some fun and explore alcohol-free alternatives. Times are changing, and there are more and more non-alcoholic drinks that are still satisfying, enjoyable alternatives. You can still enjoy the camaraderie of social drinking without compromising your progress. Lastly, set and communicate clear boundaries. It is paramount to protect your well-being and ensure that others understand and respect your limits. This can include crafting a response when you are offered a drink or asked why you’re not drinking. For example, you can say you are the designated driver or have a busy day tomorrow, which can often be enough to deflect the conversation.

Life in The Moment, Not in The Past

Presence over presents. It is important to remain present during the holiday season. People can often get caught up on what went wrong last year and try to make it ‘perfect’ this year; or what went well last year and trying to recreate again this year. Presence during the holidays doesn’t mean you have to become a mindfulness expert overnight. You can be present by getting plenty of rest and sleep, cutting back on social media to limit your distractions, pause and remember to breathe while shifting your awareness to the present moment, and balancing party planning and online shopping with moments of more human connection with your loved ones. Lastly, the holidays are an opportunity to stop, write down, and recognize the things you have in your life. By acknowledging gratitude, you can brighten your outlook, boost your mood, and help you feel more positive during stressful times.

Putting it All Together

It is important to prioritize your mental health during the holiday season. This can mean saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries. Give yourself permission to decline the things that do not serve you. The holiday season can cause a lot of emotions, and when it comes to stress, it is imperative to listen to what your body and your mind are telling you. By learning how to cope with day-to-day stress, you can be better prepared to tackle the holiday stress.


M.S.W., R.S.W., R.P. (Q)

Katie Arnold is a Master of Social Work student working with Bloom Well Therapy. Katie believes in sharing different mental health challenges that individuals go through, giving them the chance to recognize that they are not alone. She believes it is crucial to provide individuals with the opportunity to learn and grow, understand that support is available, and to help them reach their goals. 

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