‘Tis the Season for Extra Stress: Reframing the Holiday Mindset

By Jessie Spressart, Managing Director of Optia Consulting

Jessie Spressart is the CEO of Optia Consulting, with the mission to help lawyers and law firms thrive in the 21st century. An experienced coach and facilitator, she focuses on intergenerational communication, management and leadership skills, and mental health and well-being in the work place as the essential pillars on which successful professionals build their practices and careers. 

Welcome to December: many of us will be celebrating one or many holidays while gathering with family and friends and observing traditions that mark the successful conclusion of another year. This year might be the first “normal” year since 2019, which is also a reason to celebrate!

However, this is a time of year when many suffer from loneliness. Others must navigate grief and loss for the first time or in new ways. For many, the pressure to be a certain way is heightened and the weight of expectations of years gone by can be particularly heavy. According to a 2014 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) study, 64% of people with mental illness report that holidays make their conditions worse. A 2021 survey showed that 3 in 5 Americans feel the holidays negatively impact their mental health.

The holiday blues stem from various sources: shorter days and less sunlight (in the Northern Hemisphere), economic concerns, current events, personal grief, illness, separation from friends and family, and more. Combined with very real end-of-year stressors, this time of year can be challenging to navigate, especially when it seems like everyone else is merry and bright. While it’s easy to say, “don’t be so hard on yourself,” it’s much harder to do when we have an established holiday mindset and feel things must be a certain way. The habits and traditions we have built over years or decades feel much easier to fall back on even when they aren’t healthy or don’t serve us any longer.

Simply put, ’tis the season for extra stress! One way to help yourself manage it all is by cognitive reframing, or shifting your mindset so that you can look at a situation from a different perspective. Using this reframing technique, you can change how you perceive your stress triggers, thereby relieving the stress without necessarily having to change everything about the situation. Reframing is a simple four-step process that gets easier with practice:

Step 1: Learn about Thinking Patterns. The stress that accompanies the holidays often starts far before the first holiday party, well before the first greeting card arrives in the mail. When we start to anticipate the stress of the season, we begin to internalize the pressure before the events even start to show up on our calendars. We may also have learned negative thinking patterns or cognitive distortions, that don’t help us when we anticipate what is awaiting us during the holiday season.

Step 2: Notice Your Thoughts. Now that you know that there are specific patterns your thinking falls into, pay attention to when this happens. Before you can make any changes, you need to know what the problem thoughts are. Become an observer and try not to make any judgments about the thoughts that come your way. If you have been thinking about starting a mediation practice, it is a great way to practice noticing and observing your thoughts.

Step 3: Investigate (Don’t Judge) Your Thoughts. You’ve noticed that you have some recurring thoughts and perhaps some cognitive distortions when it comes to the holiday season. Instead of scolding yourself for having these thoughts, get curious about them instead. Remember, thoughts are not facts! Ask yourself if your thought is true? Is it helpful? Is there another way to look at the situation? What might be a more positive way to approach this thought?

Step 4: Replace Your Thoughts. If you’ve thoroughly investigated your negative thoughts, you’ve probably also started to see some alternatives to them. In the last step of reframing, replace the negative thoughts with more positive ones. Maybe you can reframe something you have previously viewed as a threat (something to withstand or avoid) into a challenge (something to conquer or overcome) instead. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could change your negative self-talk about holiday treats to something more positive? Perhaps you can remember the laughter at the table last year rather than focusing on the burned Christmas dessert you’ve convinced yourself ruined the entire meal.

Once you’ve started the process of reframing, you will find endless opportunities to observe, investigate, and update your thinking patterns.

While reframing your mindset is undoubtedly worthwhile, it doesn’t necessarily relieve the crunch of the limited time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s! Here are a few more suggestions to manage the holiday mayhem:

  • Postpone your holiday party: Instead of trying to fit all the gatherings into just a few weeks, celebrate the season in January instead. Not only does this take the pressure off and clear some space on the calendar, but you can also be more inclusive of various traditions and refocus the event into a celebration of all the things that happened in the previous year rather than celebrate a specific holiday.
  • Postpone your holiday greetings: Like the suggestion above, by sending New Year’s greetings instead of holiday cards, you don’t need to fit that into the busy time leading up to the holiday. If getting those cards out by a specific date is very important to you, consider e-cards (save on postage!) or outsource the envelope-addressing to your stationer.
  • Forgo gifts and make a donation: If your loved ones have all of the collectibles or golf, tennis, or boating gifts they could ever receive, consider choosing a worthy or meaningful charity and make a donation to them instead. You can do some good and spend less time on your gift list.
  • Take time to breathe: When things start to get overwhelming, taking a few minutes for some deep cleansing breaths can reset your nervous system and help you get back on track.
  • Don’t force yourself to feel happy: It may be the most wonderful time of year for some, and it just won’t be for you. That’s OK, and you are not alone in these feelings! Accept your feelings, maintain healthy habits, and prioritize your self-care.