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Managing Overwhelm During the Holidays

Updated: Jul 5

This post comes a little late, but maybe I can take to heart that I also needed to do a bit of self-care and self-reflection in the busyness of the lead up to winter holidays.  Holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years, Thanksgiving, Easter, and so many more have different meanings to all of us.  That includes those of us who are part of communities that collectively recognize the event.  I am personally a fan of Christmas and Halloween, followed by all the holidays that allow me that guilty pleasure of a longer weekend, which is often spent getting caught up on chores around the house.

Holidays can be exciting and for some, something they look forward to and fully lean into.  For others, they can be stressful and overwhelming.  This can arise from a variety of reasons.  For some, holidays are associated with loss and absence, past experiences that don’t match the energy around them.  For others, holidays can bring so much more visual, auditory and other sensory "loudness".  

Looking at Christmas as an example, shops have bright colours and loud holiday music.  There are more shoppers and, for those of us living in colder climates, we are possibly already struggling with the bulk of winter clothing, or maybe the scratchiness of those mittens or gloves.  Possibly the transition from the cold to an indoor environment is also adding to that sensory overwhelm.  

For some, holidays bring so much expectation and demands.  Presents are coming, but you can’t see them or know what they are.  Don’t touch that wrapped gift, you have to wait.  We are going to visit family and you will be away from your familiar bed and belongings.  Don’t forget to sit quietly while your child is performing in their school concert.  Make sure you have a presence at the office Christmas party.  Did you figure out what gift you should get for that secret Santa person you don’t know very well?

What can you do to limit the overwhelm?

If we are talking about you, a grown adult, you might have a bit more ability to recognize when you are getting overwhelmed or unable to find joy or relaxation during the holidays.  It could be that growing feeling of exhaustion, more irritability, more reaction to sensory stimulation than normal.  You might be feeling sad, or having intrusive thoughts or memories.  For some, holidays might bring that urge to engage in habits that they normally try to avoid.  Noticing those behaviours that signal a change is an important first step.  

If it is a loved one that struggles with the holiday season, you might be noticing similar things.  Younger children, or children less able to share their feelings and thoughts with, might be communicating their distress in other ways.  

Finding ways to recover and restore from the busyness around us can be challenging, but setting limits for  yourself is a great way to model that for others.  Look at what activities are absolutely essential and try to remove others.  Here are some other suggestions:

  • Plan for a day or two of recovery after an event that is outside of the norm.  Recovery can happen no matter where you are.  

  • Turn down the lights (if that’s something that is helpful to you or your loved one), lower other sensory stimulation.  

  • Put aside the tasks that aren’t essential.  Ask for help from others.  Participating in holidays doesn’t need to come at the cost of your mental health.  

  • Pre-plan visits to allow the person to have a safe space to go if they are not managing the setting as ideally as they would like, or if they are broadcasting some degree of distress.  

  • If the anticipation of opening gifts is too much, find creative ways to remove that expectation.  

  • If the holiday brings up associations that cause sadness, grief, or other unexpected reactions, find ways to engage in activities that create new associations or that allow you to interrupt the negative thoughts and reactions.  However, if you need a good cry, that can be healing as well.  Sometimes the release is enough to allow you to participate in the holidays enough to create those new associations.  

  • Build new memories with the safe people in your life, but allow  yourself permission to say no to an invitation if you need. 

Whether you struggle with the holidays or you celebrate and jump into everything, we hope that you find time for relaxation, recovery, and connection with those that are important to you.  All the best for this holiday season and we look forward to supporting you in 2024.

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