Surviving the Holidays

Dec 19, 2023 | holidays, Mental Health Care

While the holidays are often billed as merry and bright, this season can also bring struggles. A 2022 study by the Canadian Mental Health Association found that 52% of Canadians report feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation during the holiday season. 

With this time of year upon us, here are some gentle reminders and helpful tips for surviving the holiday season. 

If you feel a lot of pressure to “perform”

Planning, shopping, baking, cooking, wrapping, organizing, elves on shelves…sometimes the emotional labour that goes into creating the “perfect” holiday can be overwhelming and discouraging. Our energy levels and capacity to take on all of these tasks can fluctuate from year to year, but many feel pressure to live up to the hopes and expectations of their families even when they are struggling just to stay afloat of regular life. 

If your plate feels too full, finding ways to prioritize and cut back on tasks and obligations might be really helpful. Here are some things you may want to explore:

  • How can we share or lighten the load? Can we simplify or delegate our to-do lists? Can a partner or family member help with some of these tasks? Can we do a potluck style meal instead of trying to make the entire thing ourselves? 
  • Sometimes we need to adjust expectations. For example, maybe the elf is very busy helping Santa and only comes out once or twice a week instead of daily.
  • Consider what YOU value most about the holiday season. Is it rest and time off from work or other obligations? Is it connection and togetherness with family and friends? Consider saving your energy for the things that truly matter most to you.

If you have difficult family relationships

Boundaries are sometimes easier said than done, and it can be hard to know what boundaries with family even looks like depending on your situation and relationships. If the holiday season leaves you dreading challenging family dynamics, or having to go into situations that may feel uncomfortable or unsafe, there are some things you can do to help you feel like you have some choice and control:

  • Have an “exit” strategy. This may mean agreeing with your partner or spouse on what time to leave, taking your own vehicle, arranging an emergency ride with a friend or support person, knowing bus routes etc. Having an exit strategy and knowing we can leave the situation altogether if we need to can help us not to feel trapped or stuck and alleviate some feelings of anxiety.
  • Take breaks. Whether it’s a bathroom break, stepping away to refresh your drink or snack plate, taking a walk around the block, a run to the store, a time out to call a friend or support person, giving yourself some space from the situation can help you breathe and get grounded if you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Say “no”. It’s okay to be busy, to not be feeling well, or to be otherwise not available for a holiday gathering if it is just too much. You can pick and choose which events and obligations you have time/capacity/money/energy for. If you need help prioritizing, consider the events that are generally the most fun vs. the ones that feel the most draining. Remember: your feelings are just as important as everyone else’s

If you’re all alone 

With all the focus on family and together time during the holiday season, being alone for the holidays can be hard. This is the time to be gentle with yourself and to treat yourself with the love and kindness that you would give to someone you really like and care about.

  • Make plans that you can look forward to. It doesn’t have to be costly, it can even be making yourself a comfort meal and cuddling up with a favourite show or book. Make plans to connect with friends or find other ways to keep yourself busy.
  • Consider what you might do for someone else in your situation. Would you take them out for a meal? Buy them a comforting gift? Go to a movie or play games with them? Do something kind for yourself.
  • If it would feel helpful or meaningful, consider finding somewhere to volunteer. Many non-profit organizations need help with things like delivering food hampers, serving meals, sorting clothing donations etc. at this time of year. Volunteering can help you stay busy, connect you with other people, and help you feel purposeful.
  • Make time to honour your feelings. It’s okay to feel sad or lonely and it can be helpful to express those feelings in order to move through them. Remember that the holiday season is just that – a season – and this feeling is temporary.

If you’re grieving 

The loss of a loved one is never easy, and particular times of year can make their absence especially noticeable. The holiday season can come with a lot of pressure to be happy and joyful, and that can be hard when there is someone that we are deeply missing. There is no “how to” of grieving, and it’s important to remember that we all move through grief in our own way and time. 

If you’re grieving this holiday season, here are some things to remember:

  • You are not alone. Grief can feel very lonely and isolating. If you are feeling alone, please reach out to someone. This can be a friend or family member who shares the loss, a counsellor or a support group. It can even be a letter to the person who has passed
  • It’s okay to make space for them. When someone passes on, our relationship with them does not have to end, but it does change. Consider what you miss about the person and/or what is important to you about that relationship, and what that shows about your values and how they continue to be part of you and your life. Think about ways you can incorporate your memories of your loved one into your holiday season, either in old traditions or by coming up with new ones.
  • It’s okay to make space for you. That might mean taking time out from events or gatherings that feel triggering or overwhelming. It can be tempting to numb out either by staying too busy, phone scrolling, or using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling difficult emotions. Allowing ourselves time and space to feel our feelings can help us move through the grieving process. Taking time out to cry, journalling, taking a walk, or engaging in other positive coping strategies can help us to connect with our grief and feel a little more peaceful than we did before.


If you are struggling, know that there is help and support available. If you require additional supports during this time, consider using the following resources: