how to deal with christmas stress

Why do we get stressed at Christmas?

For many of us, Christmas is not the season of joy and happiness that we expect it will be.

While the celebrations and festivities often abound, there is an enormous amount of pressure that accompanies these. Pressure to appear happy, relaxed and joyful. Pressure to spend more than we can afford. Pressure to get extra things done, in our already busy lives. While on the outside we may appear to be enjoying the festive season, reality is that many of us are simply feeling stressed; scrambling to keep on top of it all.

Increased stress at Christmas

As we count down the days until Christmas, our to-do lists seem to get longer, and our stress levels become higher.

In fact, research conducted in the US in 2006 for the American Psychological Society found that people are more likely to feel their stress increase during the holiday season[i]. The groups particularly affected were women, who take charge of many of the holiday responsibilities, and lower middle income groups.

Apart from joy and happiness feelings people can experience during Christmas include fatigue, stress, irritability, sadness, anger and loneliness. Key issues that increased levels of stress were:

  • lack of money
  • grief and loss
  • lack of time
  • hype and commercialism of the season.

Great expectations

Many of us feel stressed out during the Christmas period simply because of the weight of expectation that accompanies the festive season. Often our expectations of what Christmas ‘should be’ doesn’t marry up to our  reality, and we begin to worry and become stressed.

For example:

Expectation (stinking thinking)
Everyone will be enjoying Christmas with family and friends.


Our family should all get along at Christmas

I am alone and have no one.



Tensions around the family table are evident


All gifts are given careful consideration, bought in plenty of time and are perfectly wrapped. Christmas shopping is a strain on the budget and most gifts are bought at the last minute.
The roast lunch is cooked with minimal hassle with all the trimmings and the table is set beautifully. We are hot and flustered cooking the Christmas lunch, and worried about timing the vegetables. The table does not look like it does in a magazine.
I must buy my children everything they ask for otherwise they will think I don’t love them. I simply can’t afford it and we love each other regardless!

An expectation or false belief is most commonly identified by noticing the words ‘should’, “ought” or “must’ in our thinking. We should take the time to write out Christmas cards. I “must” make sure the house is clean and lawns freshly mowed for Christmas day. We should have a magnificent feast for Christmas lunch. I “shouldn’t” be lonely.

When we set our intentions based on false beliefs we set ourselves up for disappointment. Maybe you take on too many responsibilities and then feel pressured to fulfil all your promises. Or perhaps life just gets in the way, and the energy and finances you planned to put into ‘making Christmas perfect’, needs to be spent on other more important things, leaving you feeling frustrated that you can’t do it all.

Either way, great expectations, which are often unrealistic expectations, often lead to stress.

Unrealistic expectations around Christmas

It’s no secret that having unrealistic expectations can set you up for failure.[ii] Believing that Christmas should be a certain way puts a tremendous amount of pressure on you to ‘get it just right’. And when reality gets in the way, we can feel negative emotions such as failure and frustration.

Unrealistic expectations and our overall feelings towards Christmas usually come from four main areas:

  • Our past experiences
  • Traditions (Religion, societal and family)
  • Media
  • Retail/Advertising.


There are many Christmas traditions that we still observe around Christmas time. For example, sending Christmas cards, eating turkey for lunch and trimming the Christmas tree. However, not all of them continue to serve us well.

For example, the tradition of having a hot Christmas lunch with a roasted turkey, followed by plum pudding is one that originate in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas occurs in winter. Yet, here in Australia, we celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer. Scorching days, make cooking a roast dinner in the middle of the day almost unbearable, and a cooling ice-cream or sorbet is more appealing that hot pudding with custard. Yet many of us continue to choose turkey and pudding.


Watch any movie or TV show centred around Christmas and what you’ll probably notice is the picture-perfect postcard of a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. Houses are decorated perfectly; snow is falling; everyone is laughing; catching up with family is the most wonderful experience; there seem to be hundreds of gifts wrapped perfectly under the carefully themed and colour-coordinated tree; and the beautifully set table is almost groaning with the weight of the perfectly cooked turkey and accompanying sides.

This is not reality. Many of us have been conditioned over the years, that Christmas should look like this. Not all of us have the time or money to devote to making Christmas look like a movie set. And as for family get-togethers, reality is that family relationships can sometimes be strained, difficult and downright stressful at times.


Enter a shopping centre anytime from September and you’ll see the magnificent decorations, trimmed trees and festive lights. Store windows are carefully decorated to entice you into their store, where you’ll find a plethora of gifts to choose from.

Remember that all this is to entice you to spend money. Marketers and advertisers regularly use psychology as a way to make their campaigns more effective. Some key tactics[iii] they use, which are often employed around Christmas include:

  • Focusing on the emotional appeal
  • Highlighting your flaws or what’s missing in your life
  • Promoting exclusivity.

Add to this the message of, “Christmas is all about giving”, and it’s easy to see why many of us end up spending more than we intend, at Christmas.

How do we get past expectations?

If you want to lower your stress levels this Christmas, the key is to change your expectations. Instead of focusing on the shoulds, musts and oughts surrounding Christmas, focus on the wants.

What do you want Christmas to be? How do you want to feel during the festive season? How do you want to feel when it’s over? Who do you want to be with? What do you want your budget to look like in January?

It’s also useful to take the time to examine your values and beliefs surrounding Christmas. What is important to you? Is it giving gifts? Spending time with those you love? Feeling at peace? Focusing on the religious message of Christmas? Taking time to relax?

When you know what’s important to you, and how you want to feel, it’s a lot easier to get past the expectations and therefore lower your stress levels.

Make a plan and be realistic

While Christmas is a time of celebration and joy for many, it is also the time of year, when people are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.[iv] For people with difficult family relationships, Christmas can be an even greater challenge.

A 2014 survey conducted by Relationships Australia[v] found that around a third of respondents indicated that their family relationships were highly negatively affected at Christmas due to work-life balance issues. Similarly, a third reported that their family relationships were highly negatively affected due to financial worries. Respondents also indicated that spending time with extended family members, including in-laws contributed to a high rate of family stress at Christmas.

One of the best ways to lower your stress levels this Christmas is be realistic, make a plan and seek support. Tips to do this[vi] include:

  • Acknowledge your feelings, particularly if you are sad about broken relationships or the death of a loved one
  • Be realistic about what you can and can’t do
  • Set aside differences with family members if possible
  • Stick to a budget and don’t be tempted to buy happiness with gifts
  • Plan ahead and set aside specific times for shopping, gift wrapping and other Christmas-related activities
  • Learn to say ‘no’ to the things you really don’t want to do
  • Make time for you, amid the madness, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day
  • Reach out to community groups if you feel lonely.

While there is a lot of focus surrounding Christmas, remember that in the overall scheme of things, it is really just one day.

If you are religious or acknowledge the true spiritual meaning of Christmas then ultimately you know you are not alone. The values of love, kindness, peace and forgiveness are just not intended for others but also for ourselves.

Christmas is a day in the calendar year where the historical event namely the birth of Jesus is acknowledged and you have a  choice as to what you do on this day. Don’t let those Christmas “shoulds” sabotage you.

Merry Christmas!


[i] Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, American Psychological Association, Holiday Stress, published December 2006,

[ii] Margarita Tartakovsy, Psych Central, How to Relinquish Unrealistic Expectations,

[iii] Robert Rosenthal, Fast Company, 5 Psychological Tactics Marketers Use To Influence Consumer Behaviour,

[iv] Relationships Australia, December 2014:Family Stress at Christmas time,

[v] Relationships Australia, December 2014:Family Stress at Christmas time,

[vi] Mayo Clinic, Stress, depression and the holidays: tips for coping,