Navigating painful feelings during the holiday season

Our psychologist, Carly O’Sullivan, shares tips for taking care of yourself and others during a challenging time of year.

Whilst we are often told it’s the ‘most wonderful time of the year’, December can be a challenging month. The holidays often come with expectations that we should all be merry and carefree. However, for many people, the holiday season can be overwhelming, stressful, isolating, and can even bring up painful memories and reminders of loss. If you feel tired, disconnected, or anxious during this time of year, you are not alone.

Here are some common ways our mental health can be affected in the holidays, and some tips for coping.

How might the holiday season affect mental health?

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Financial pressures
  • Dealing with challenging family dynamics
  • Grief and bereavement
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed
  • Navigating endless decision-making and competing demands
  • Memories of previous holidays seasons
  • Alcohol and food issues

Navigating painful feelings during the holiday season / Sydney City Psychology

Top tips for taking care of your mental health this holiday season:

Connect with others

Connection is a human need. If you’re feeling isolated, consider if there are creative ways to reach out to others this season. Perhaps you would like to volunteer with a local organisation, check in with a neighbour or someone you know who may also find this time of year difficult, create holiday cards, or catch up through a video call with friends or family you can’t see in person this December.

Ease financial burdens with a budget

There can be immense pressures that encourage over-spending in the holidays. Plan ahead by creating a budget that meets your needs. This year, it may be important to communicate with loved ones ahead of time to create realistic expectations around gift-giving and events. If you’re feeling financial stress at the moment, chances are some of your friends and family are too! Instead of expensive presents, maybe there is an opportunity to turn towards alternative gift ideas this season, like homemade baked goods or artistic creations, or passing on a book you loved.

Create a plan of action for managing family tensions

Part of the reason the holidays can be so stressful is the unrealistic expectation of coming together as a ‘happy family’. Creating a plan for managing family this season may give you more confidence in managing any challenging family dynamics you face. This might involve breaking up celebrations into smaller gatherings, planning activities like games or movies to give everyone something to focus on, taking breaks for yourself, and limiting your alcohol intake to help manage any emotions running high. Appreciate that most people are under some stress at this time of year, and practice empathy where you can.

Prepare for grief

Significant holidays can be very difficult if you are experiencing bereavement. It’s normal for feelings around grief to intensify at this time of year. Remember that people show their grief differently. If you can, it may be helpful to share memories of loved ones you have lost with others in your life to help you process your grief. It’s common to feel guilty about having ‘too much fun’ during the holidays without the person you are grieving – remember that you are allowed to experience joy, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love or miss that special person.

Prioritise self-care

December can be an overstimulating and overwhelming time with work deadlines, festive events, and busy schedules. Consider scheduling in some dedicated time for self-care to allow yourself time to process and unwind. Using tools like journaling, mindfulness, or therapy may give you the space you need to slow down, reflect, and recover from stress.

Remember the holidays can be a difficult time for many. It’s okay to ask for help if you need support at this time of year. Contact us at Sydney City Psychology today for support.

Navigating painful feelings during the holiday season / Sydney City Psychology