11 Ways to Avoid a Toxic or Stressful Holiday Season

holiday stress

We are knee-deep in the holiday season. For some, this is great news and for others a dreadful, stressful time. The stress of family gatherings with toxic relatives, the financial stress of buying gifts, and dealing with traffic and crowds during the holiday season can wreak havoc on our bodies, mentally, emotionally, and physically. For some people, even so much as anticipating get-togethers, gift-giving, or company parties can change body chemistry and raise stress hormones, such as cortisol levels. This can negatively impact brain health, psychological well-being, and more.


The stress of family gatherings with toxic relatives, the financial stress of buying gifts, and dealing with traffic and crowds during the holiday season can wreak havoc on our bodies, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Click To Tweet


The intensity of holiday busyness can take a toll and if relationships are strained or feel toxic, this can have an impact on our overall health and wellness.

  • Low energy is a symptom of stress. You might be sleepy throughout the day and have no drive to keep up with a busy schedule. Naps and lying around may sound appealing, but it might not be solely because you’re sleepy. If you’ve ruled out other reasons for fatigue it could be connected to internal toxic energy. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences shows a correlation between depression, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), and fatigue.
  • You’re impatient and get annoyed easily. If there’s even moderate traffic you sigh heavily, roll your eyes, and get angry at other drivers. Lines are long in the market, and you feel yourself getting tense and emotionally charged if people are moving slowly. You have little to no patience and find yourself wanting to lecture others for “bad” behavior.
  • Anxiety and depression. A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 64% of people with diagnosed mental illnesses said their symptoms were worse during the holidays. If you are not clinically diagnosed with anxiety or depression, you might find that you feel some of the symptoms of one or both during this hectic and possibly toxic time.

While we might not be able to hop on a plane and head to the tropics for a month to bypass the stress and toxicity of the holidays, there are ways to calm our internal landscape and breathe easier throughout this time of year. If it feels like the wheels are falling off and you don’t know how to cope with toxic family systems or relationships in general, or the global stress of the season, here are tips to help you through it.


1. Think boundaries, not walls.

Effective boundary setting is a bid for connection and closeness, not a method of shutting people out. If you’re tempted to say yes to every request, you might build resentment or spread yourself too thin and cancel your commitment at the last minute. By being selective about what you feel you can handle, you are honoring your own time and needs as well as the person you’re setting a boundary with. Clear communication about your wants and needs sets the tone of mutual respect with yourself and others.

2. Meditate.

A 2017 study showed a significant improvement in mood after practicing mindfulness meditation. You don’t have to sit for hours to reap the benefits of meditation; like exercise, there is no exact amount of time that is required to feel its positive effects. Make a daily routine of closing your eyes, focusing on your breath, and being still for even a few minutes throughout your day. Use a guided meditation to help you focus and stay present if needed. Being consistent and meditating daily for short periods of time is more beneficial than intermittently meditating for long periods of time.

3. Exercise.

Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain that help clear your mind and calm your nervous system. There is an abundance of research supporting the physical effects of exercise such as lower blood pressure, higher levels of cardiovascular fitness, and lower chances of getting cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The mental and physical benefits of exercise include a decrease in depression and anxiety as well as an effective way to stave off the negative impact of toxic stress.

4. Cultivate compassion.

While it might not seem easy or even possible, make an effort to accept and feel love for the people in your life. If someone is particularly toxic or your dynamic is unhealthy then it could be time to sever ties, but in less extreme cases and with the public at large, take a breath and remember that people are often a mixture of many things—sometimes difficult to communicate with and other times loving, funny and thoughtful. Put the focus on the whole person, not just the problematic behavior.

5. Head outdoors.

If you’re in a climate where it is cold and dreary, getting outside could be tricky; however, being outdoors doesn’t have to mean an all-day excursion to your favorite hiking trail. Even 10 or 15 minutes of fresh air can do wonders for your mental health. A 2017 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed a significant increase in participants’ states of well-being after spending time in outdoors.

6. Be perfectly imperfect.

Is the bow on the present to your co-worker lopsided? If so, oh well! Let it be. It’s easy to get mired in the details of everything being “just so” and have high self-expectations of yourself but it is detrimental to your health. Let the small stuff go as best you can. Beware of toxic perfectionism, where you might set unrealistic goals, be very hard on yourself, or feel underlying shame about past behavior that motivates you to be “good” all of the time.

7. Avoid alcohol.

If you’re having a drink or two every day, keep in mind that even low to moderate levels of alcohol use have a negative impact on your brain. A study examining the effects of chronic alcohol consumption at low to moderate amounts showed decreases in grey and white matter in the brain and brain shrinkage. Additionally, alcohol lowers the ability to think clearly and make sound choices and can lead to more toxic interactions with others. If saying no to alcohol is challenging, use these tips to help communicate clearly. Find new mocktails or infused water to make, and remember, it’s always OK to stay hydrated by sipping on water at a holiday party!

8. Stick to talking about the weather or sports.

Avoid controversial conversations that could get heated. Speaking about political or newsworthy events is beneficial to rally together and effect change but can lead to toxic interactions if opinions are not respected. Avoid topics that are likely to cause division. If someone else brings up a contentious political topic, set a boundary such as “I’m going to keep our conversation to things other than politics” and ask about their children, pets, job, favorite sports team, hobby, or next vacation. Neutral conversation and asking people questions about themselves can keep you out of the hot seat. Keep in mind that some people with ADD/ADHD can get a rush from arguments; it is important not to engage and avoid toxic talk.

9. Get creative with gifts.

Buying gifts can be a major source of financial stress. Get past the pressure of buying lavish presents in high quantity for your loved ones, and instead offer loving acts such as babysitting, dog sitting, or making healthy treats. Purchase a gift card for groceries or gasoline. If you are ambitious or crafty, make a recipe book, photo album, or draw something special. Plan a special day outdoors, go to a museum, make a music playlist, or write a meaningful letter to those you love. Ideas that are free or inexpensive abound and as a bonus, using your creativity can help calm you down. World-renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow,” which relates to a state of happiness found when we are doing things we love, including creative endeavors.

10. Seek solitude.

Spending time with friends, family, and co-workers, and being in the mix of the holiday chaos at retail and grocery stores can lead to a state of overstimulation and overwhelm. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, solitude is an important way to recharge and get quiet. Data from a 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology show an increase in self-connection, a sense of autonomy, and self-reliance as a direct connection to solitude.

11. Breathe.

There are myriad breathing exercises to calm the nervous system and exploring those is a great way to find out what works best for you. Getting more oxygen into our bloodstream is extremely beneficial to slow down racing thoughts, regulate mood, and reset an overall state of being from stressed to relaxed. Diaphragmatic breathing is a great one to try, as is breathing from your belly, through your nose, and out through your mouth. As you breathe deeply, consciously relax tense areas of your body. Use this kind of breathwork to complement meditation and practice it anywhere, anytime.

Anxiety, depression, emotional trauma, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Dr Amen thank you for your emails. This was especially helpful to me. See the whole person not just their problematic behavior. My adult kids. Breathing to 4. Pause twice. Then exhale to 8 helps a lot. And meditation. I'm a perfectionist. I'm an artist. Attention to detail is what I'm known for. I was an Art teacher planning classes for 520 students a week. Art shows. Published poet. And very frustrated writer now. I had the blues last week on my anniversary date. I'm not usually like this. I love Christmas. There are toxic relatives who will never change. Being forgotten isn't easy to live with. It got to me again. My husband's family and my family and my daughter.
    Your feedback is most appreciated. Journalling helps a writer the most. Thanks again for being there. I love all your shows too. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays

    Comment by Donna M Hopcraft — December 19, 2022 @ 6:30 AM

  2. Thank you for your caring, healthy, practical ways to keep healthy during the holidays. God bless you.

    Comment by Jean — December 19, 2022 @ 7:13 AM

  3. great advice!

    Comment by Douglas Morris — December 20, 2022 @ 2:20 PM

  4. Suffered a panic attack when my mom passed away in 2001, recovered months later. Hit with another stressor and got a panic attack while driving my child. Recovered weeks later, but won’t drive the freeway anymore. Third episode going on 2 weeks now. Usually more anxious before my period (43yr old). I have 2 teens a one 5 year old so I need help managing anxiety. Especially while driving, I’ve been avoiding driving for 2 weeks. Any advice? Not driving is not an option. Thanks

    Comment by Lorena Casillas — December 22, 2022 @ 11:33 AM

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