Ways to Manage Stress Over the Holidays (That Don’t Involve Drinking) 101

By Kelly Flood, MSW, LMSW

For many people, the holidays are often a time for celebration and gathering of loved ones. Whether you are hosting or visiting your family or friends home for the holidays, there are always a few essential items included for the celebration, such as food, presents, and a common one: alcohol. If you are opening a bottle of wine or bringing a six pack of beer, there are a few things to keep in mind while drinking alcohol this holiday season.

With the holidays often comes feelings of joy, gratitude, and elation. But, another less commonly talked about reality of the holidays include feelings of sadness and loneliness that are often present. In addition, seeing family can be a source of stress for many individuals. Anticipating uncomfortable conversations, such as “Are you dating anyone?”, “Who did you vote for in the election?”, or simply seeing family you may not necessarily enjoy the company of, many people intentionally bring alcohol to mitigate and make these uncomfortable interactions more bearable. Regardless of whether you are drinking to celebrate or cope with the holidays, alcohol consumption has a direct effect on our mood. When not drinking alcohol responsibly, our bodies and minds feel the consequences, such as physical illness, impaired judgment, and exacerbation of emotions, especially negative ones. People who have a few drinks within a short time frame tend to experience an intensification of any already present negative emotions, such as amplified anxiety, depression, or anger. Research delves into the idea that while most people drink to relieve stress and negative emotions, it often ends up adversely affecting them by increasing stress and anxiety. Alcohol can also end up leading us to say things we will later regret or prevent us from relating to other people, as well as even decreasing our enjoyment in holiday meals due to alcohol temporarily altering and dampening our taste buds.

While having a glass of wine or a beer with dinner during the holidays is common, it is important to know your limits for both your physical and mental health. Setting boundaries is a great way to enjoy alcohol over the holidays, but keep it within healthy limits. If you find yourself utilizing alcohol as your go-to method of coping with the stressors and negative feelings associated with the holidays, or just drinking more than you would like to this holiday season, here are some tangible techniques based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practices to try to help manage holiday stressors in other ways. All of these techniques can be done discreetly in the presence of others at any holiday gathering, or by taking a moment away from the festivities and stepping into another room or outside for some privacy.

  • Practice deep breathing: taking a few deep breaths can help increase the level of oxygen reaching your brain, further stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and prompting your body to calm down and relax.
  • Do a body scan: when we feel anxious, stressed, or angry, we often store that tension in our bodies. Take a moment to bring awareness to the different parts of your body, such as your neck, shoulders, and hands, and ensure you are not clenching your fists or constricting your shoulders. Release the tightness, take a breath, and let your body relax.
  • Journal: while pulling out a notepad or journal at a holiday gathering is often not feasible, a simple way to get your sad, anxious, or angry thoughts and feelings out of your mind is to jot them down on a notes app on your phone.

Hopefully these tips come in handy during stress inducing scenarios this holiday season and, if effective, can become staple go-to coping skills to help with stress and emotion regulation in your everyday life.

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