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How to Deal with Holiday Despair

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

As soon as Halloween jack-o-lanterns and Freddy Kreuger costumes appear and fade away, retail stores whip out giant inflatable Santas, orange, brown, and red turkey decorations, and cornucopias. Kids are making those hand-drawn turkeys in school and wearing construction paper pilgrim hats. The leaves are gone, and snow might be on the ground (except in most of the South). For most, these sights bring a small rush of, “Yes! It’s the holidays!!!”

For others, myself and millions of retail workers included, it’s a feeling of dread.

“Crap, it’s the holidays.”

The time that’s supposed to be joyous and full of family time, making memories and bonding isn’t that picture-perfect Kodak moment for many of us. And you know what? It’s perfectly okay if Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” makes you want to cover your ears and find a hiding place until Martin Luther King Day. If the nearing holiday season is causing you anxiety or depression, you’re not alone.

How can you cope during the endless replays of “Santa Baby” (a song that personally creeps me out)? What can you do to practice self-care when feeling forced to be in a room with a family you may not necessarily feel safe around or love? Who can you talk to when certain smells trigger panic attacks or bring up buried trauma?

Let’s walk through this together


1. Write down your boundaries and enforce them.

If you have a vague idea of what you can handle, don’t want to even be bothered with, or stuff you’re not exactly sure will trigger you… take the time to write it out. Grab your journal, the Notes app on your phone, or heck, even a sticky note. Separate your list into three categories.

Fuck No I Will Not I Guess I Can Deal With This I Can Definitely Do It

Don’t let the holidays catch you off guard. If you don’t want to go to your Great-Aunt Ethel’s house for Christmas because of bad memories, you don’t have to. It doesn’t matter if your mom will be so disappointed, because Great-Aunt Ethel is getting up there in years, and it might be the last Christmas you get to spend together as a family. Your mom probably said that for the last 6 years, and guess what? Auntie Ethel is still kicking. Do what is best for you, whether that’s practicing self-care or volunteering somewhere to have a positive distraction. Don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself.

Also, here’s a hint: In the “I guess I can deal with this” category, write down a backup plan or two if it indeed turns out you can’t deal with it.

2. Seek out friends that also have the same aversion to holidays or may not have plans.

I have gone to Friendsgivings for the last… 5 or 6 years? Friendsgivings are so fun! The pressure is off, and everyone usually has a great time. Typically at a Friendsgiving, there isn’t a set dinner time or awkward political conversations where your thinly-veiled racist and very drunk Uncle Randy goes on a tirade while you’re just sitting there wishing you could pay off your student loans and be at home with your cat. It’s okay, you can laugh and cringe simultaneously. We’ve all been there.

Friendsgivings are the best. What was the phrase that came out at the beginning of the pandemic? Alone together. At Friendsgiving, you get to be alone together with people you actually like. Imagine that.

3. Have a support system in place.

I had a friend in high school that was recovering from an eating disorder. One day, she pointed out something that I had never even considered. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break, and on the bus ride home, she said, “I’m so stressed. All the holidays revolve around food.”

I quickly grouped all the holidays together in my head, and the only one that didn’t have something to do with food was Presidents’ Day. Everything else pretty much has a lot to do with drinking a lot or eating a bunch. Even on Veteran’s Day, stores and restaurants offer veterans free or discounted meals.

If an eating disorder or a preoccupation with food is causing you anxiety, start building up a support network now, if you haven’t already. There are online support groups and counseling, like in 7 Cups and In the Rooms. Also, if you have a trusted family member or friend, let them know that you’re feeling the strain already. Come up with a safety plan with your therapist, if you’re in therapy.

4. Breathe and unclench your muscles.

This may seem like a dumb point, but we all have trauma responses and reactions to certain triggers. Fight, flight, or freeze happens without warning and without our control. If the anxiety begins to take hold, walk away, and breathe. Ground yourself. Practice mindfulness and bring yourself back to the present moment.

My favorite grounding technique is naming and observing objects while taking long and slow breaths. “Green chair, four legs, yellow cushion with six buttons, on a white tile floor….” You get the idea.

5. Be aware of your triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms

A list will come in handy here, too. Seeing your triggers and also knowing all the not-so-great ways of coping will save you. Some people turn to self-harm in a number of ways without even realizing they’re doing it until they come back to reality. Knowledge of self is the best defense in this situation.

For example, a phrase I’m triggered by is the seemingly harmless, “Good enough.”

I immediately shut down emotionally and go into armadillo mode. If you’ve seen the TV show “New Girl”, the character Nick moonwalks away awkwardly whenever something uncomfortable is going on around him.

I do the same internally, but knowing that is a great thing. I’m prepared to hear it around the holidays. I know that instead of running to get a glass of wine to open up again, I need to have water and self-soothe. Drinking excessively has been an unhealthy coping skill of mine, and it’s definitely not one I want to return to.

Know yourself, and even give yourself a practice run. Say it out loud. “If I am triggered, I am going to say, ‘Excuse me,’ walk away, and grab a seltzer water out of the fridge.”

6.Trust yourself

You know you better than anyone, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. If you know that the movie “A Christmas Story” makes you sad in a way that you don’t understand, don’t let anyone talk you into watching it.

You are in control of yourself, and you have the self-awareness, self-respect, and self-love to take care of your needs this holiday season. What was that quote from Mean Girls? “You go, Glen Coco!”

It’s all you. You’re Glen Coco, too.

7. Positive Affirmations

You know I love affirmations. They put us in a better mind frame and they help us manage stressful situations. Here are a few for the holidays. Write them down, or come up with your own, and say them aloud.

“I am enough.”

“I have the right to feel safe and respected.”

“The happiness of others is not my responsibility.”

“I accept myself just as I am.”

“I am allowed to do what I want with my life.”

“I am allowed to say, “no,” to others, and “yes,” to myself.”

“I’ve survived this feeling before, and I can do it again.”

“I am resilient and can get through anything I put my mind to.”

The holiday season isn’t for all of us, and again, that’s totally okay. Personally, my favorite part of the holidays is the time period of December 26- December 31. All the pressure is off for me because I don't celebrate Kwanzaa. That "lame duck" week is pure heaven.

Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe, warm, and happy this holiday season, and heck, every day. How do you practice self-care during the holidays? I’d love to know!

***If you enjoyed this post by Iris, please read more on her blog! There's a reason we chose her as a Featured Author. ***

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Camille Roney
Camille Roney
Nov 18, 2020

Thankfully things will be a bit quieter this year!


Ivan Jose
Ivan Jose
Nov 18, 2020

These are great tips, very appropriate for these times when it's all too easy to fall into despair.


Such a fantastic blog post. I always need to remind myself to unclench my jaw.


Chloe Faulkner
Chloe Faulkner
Nov 17, 2020

Great post! The holidays can be such a difficult time for people, especially this year.


Cristina Petrini
Cristina Petrini
Nov 16, 2020

Very important points to be applied to oneself and from life, a real path towards awareness and love for oneself.

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