Holiday Self-Care 101


Holiday season is ramping up.  For some, this can be an exciting time to decorate, give gifts, and spend time with friends and family.  However, the holidays can also bring stressors that we don’t normally experience during the rest of the year: the pressure to spend time with family members who may be challenging for us, to navigate the logistics of traveling, or to come up with excess money to spend on holiday parties, gifts, or elaborate meals (to name a few). While this time of year can trigger stress for just about anyone, it can be particularly challenging for empathic individuals, who may feel guilty when setting boundaries or being unable to live up to expectations, and overachievers, who want to do it all (and do it perfectly). To reduce the likelihood of a stressful holiday season, develop a self-care plan in advance of your potential stressors.

Reduce Your Susceptibility to Holiday Stress by Coping Ahead

Increase the chances that you will effectively navigate the holiday season by proactively identifying situations that may be difficult for you, or have been difficult for you in the past.  This is a technique recommended in Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT) called “Cope Ahead” to help increase positive emotions and decrease negative ones.  For some people, this may mean answering questions from prying family members about your life plan (“Why aren’t you married?” “Why don’t you have a better job?” “Are your kids going to church?” “Have you bought a house yet?”). Other people may struggle with the social anxiety that accompanies group gatherings, or be concerned about conversing with people they know share different religious, political, or social views. Or perhaps, they struggle with the fact that they can’t afford everything on their children’s Christmas or Hanukah lists, and stress every year about the disappointment they will experience after gift-giving.

Make your Plan

Developing a Cope Ahead plan is not difficult. Utilize the following steps to develop an initial plan for yourself:

  1. Reflect on prior holiday seasons. Make a list of as many things you can think of that stressed you out, made you feel guilty, or overwhelmed you. It may be events you have to attend, expectations that are set by yourself or others, or added pressure you experience at work or from family members.
  2. Start by picking one thing on this list to tackle first. Use your gut to choose your first issue based on priority or timeliness.  For example, if Thanksgiving is a struggle for you every year, you may want to start your self-care plan here (since Thanksgiving is in the earlier part of the holiday season). If timeliness isn’t a factor, choose the thing that stresses you out the most (maybe it’s attending your company’s annual holiday party.)
  3. Once you’ve identified the stressor you want to target first, take a few moments to write down in detail what exactly stresses you out about this situation. Don’t include judgments, just facts. Include information about how this event makes you feel and how you normally deal with it. Example: Every year when my boyfriend and I go to my family’s house for Christmas dinner, my religious aunt asks me why we are living together without being married. I feel embarrassed that she asks such personal questions in front of family members and also angry. I feel like telling her off, but instead I just chuckle and say something like, “Ooooh, maybe someday”
  4. Ask yourself how you WISH you dealt with this situation in the past, how you want to feel after handling the situation, and how you might handle the scenario this year. Example: I don’t want to be rude to my aunt, because I know she doesn’t mean to be intrusive, but I wish I could stick up for myself a bit more. I don’t want to feel like a pushover. I want to say something to her but be polite and respectful.
  5. Write out a specific, detailed description of how you want to follow-through on your plan. Include what you will say or do, how you will say or do it, and what you want to be thinking or feeling while you are dealing with it. Example: When my Aunt asks me about my living situation, I will say, “Thank you so much for asking. We really like the way our lives are going right now, and we plan to just go with that. And I feel embarrassed talking about my personal life over holiday dinner, so I’d rather just focus on enjoying our time together if that’s okay with you?” I will set an intention to say this in a way that is relaxed, friendly, and nonjudgmental. If I feel anxious about saying this, I will tell myself “there is nothing wrong with drawing a boundary.” After I’ve said what I want to say, I picture myself feeling proud, happy about how I handled it, and calm.
  6. If you are afraid that implementing your self-care plan will result in some kind of catastrophe, ask yourself what that catastrophe is and what you can do to cope with it if it happens. Example: I’m afraid I will hurt my aunt’s feelings and she might cry. While this probably won’t happen, if she does feel hurt, I can apologize and tell her my intention was not to hurt her feelings.
  7. Once you’ve developed your plan, visualize yourself in your scenario. Try to imagine your are living it in the here and now and imagine yourself successfully implementing your self-care plan.
  8. Rehearse this plan in your mind over and over again, up until the time of the event. Think of it as training your brain in advance so that your self-care plan is more likely to kick in naturally.
  9. Even just thinking about stressful events can sometimes be stressful, so set a goal for yourself that every time you practice your self-care plan in your mind, that you will follow it up with something relaxing.

Once you feel good about the self-care plan you’ve established, or the stressor in question has passed, complete the same process for the next item on your list, and so on and so forth.  Continue to work your way through your list until the end of the holiday season, or until you feel confident developing Cope Ahead plans without writing them down.  Developing and implementing your plan cultivates your resilience toward the stressor so that when the event does happen, it has less power over you. Plus, it provides you with the opportunity to cope in the way you feel best about. So give it a try! If you’ve developed a Cope Ahead self-care plan, I’d love to hear about it. Shoot me an email at