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Coping skills during the holidays

By Michelle Salerno, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at Joi Counseling Center

The holiday season is upon us. For some, this brings about feelings of excitement, nostalgia, and anticipation. For others, it triggers feelings of worry, anxiety, and sadness. Most will experience a mixture of these complex emotions.

Each year the holiday season seems to begin earlier and earlier. Our surroundings send us the message that we should be excited about the holidays. So, what if we aren’t? Sometimes this can cause frustration within and we ask ourselves . . . why can’t I just relax. . . why can’t I be joyful like my friends?

When we find ourselves meditating on the negative messages in our heads, it’s important that we interrupt the cycle of negative self-talk.

We can be so self-critical and often talk to ourselves in ways we would never imagine speaking to others. In fact, when and if we do catch ourselves wrapped in a demeaning inner dialog, it’s important that we see a big red stop sign flash in our minds to nip those thoughts in the bud.

Next, we need to replace negative talk with positive. For example:

“It’s okay that I feel differently than others about the holidays. I’ve had a tough year”


“I’m entitled to have my own feelings, just as my friends are entitled to theirs”


“I’m working on improving my attitude and that’s a process that takes time. I need to be patient with myself.”

Everyone has a right to their feelings. Even during “the most wonderful time of the year!”

A good mantra to have tucked away for complex moments when you’re not feeling the way the world expects you to respond is:

“I have a right to my feelings, even if others feel differently.”

We all bring our own history to each moment. Holiday stress often falls under categories that I call the “4 Fs:” Family, finances, frenzy, and food.


The holidays may signal more family time for you. This can be a nerve-racking time for some, and while this doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family or that you aren’t a good daughter, sister, mother, etc., it does means you are human and healthy humans experience a full range of emotions.

Family time can also be frustratingly conflicting. It can be confusing when, in your everyday life, you may be secure, accomplished, articulate, and calm but when you walk through what I call the “magic door” of your family home, you shrink.

And suddenly you are 8 years old again.

The same old buttons are being pushed by your family members that were pushed back then. Everyone falls back into the same roles they had when you were growing up. For example, if you are the “baby” in your family, perhaps your opinions are not taken seriously because you are still viewed as the little sister . . . even though you may run your own household, or maybe even your own company.

Often families fall back into these old roles when everyone is back together.

Sometimes what was a familiar routine and how our family treated siblings, mom, dad, step-parents, etc, may be even more stressful than not being heard. Although we have some wonderful memories with family, some may be painful, and being together may bring up some of those memories.

As a family, you may also be touched by loss. Being together may remind you of who isn’t present and that’s difficult to maneuver by yourself let alone in a crowd of relatives.

Two things that I tell all of my clients regarding self-care and stress relief are: positive self-talk and asking for what you need.

When dealing with family, the voice you have inside your head needs to be YOURS (not your mother’s or sibling’s negative jabs) and it needs to be POSITIVE:

“I am not a little girl anymore. I am accomplished and competent. If my family still sees me as an 8-year-old, it is their loss. They are missing a lot of amazing stuff.”

I cannot overstate the importance of positive self-talk. This can help you as you are approaching the “magic door:”

“I am 35 (45, 55, etc.) years old. I do not have to shrink.”

Next, be sure to always advocate for what you need. This is something that can be especially difficult for women. We are used to taking care of others’ needs, but we must remember that our own needs are equally important. In fact, if we take care of our own needs, we are more successful at caring for others.

Plus, if we expressly present what our needs are, we have a better chance of getting our needs met, and therefore feel more comfortable.

But only if we ASK.

So, what do you need when it comes to your family this holiday season? Do you need to ask to gather at a different time or on a different day to make life a bit less stressful for you?

When considering multiple family members, you may not be able to completely change a meeting time, but you can still take care of your own needs. Maybe you can decide to arrive a little later. If you are working on Christmas Eve until 5:00 and your family is gathering at 5:30, you may give yourself permission to not rush (which increases anxiety) and arrive for dessert.

What if someone’s missing?

You may be very aware of who is not at your holiday table this year. What can you do to celebrate them? Would you like to make a special dish that reminds you of them? Would you like to take turns sharing special stories? Our loved ones are always with us and through self-talk, we can remind ourselves of this when we are struggling.


This is a major area of distress and worries around the holidays for some individuals and families and another area where asking for what you need is key. My former co-workers and I started a tradition of exchanging gifts with one another. When we started this tradition, we were all at different stages in our lives. Most of us either didn’t have children or may have just been starting our families.

As our family and friend circles grew, so did our yearly expenses. And as the years went on, our tradition of gift exchanging which started out with excitement became stressful. Finally, about 15 years into the tradition, one of my friends sent an email to all of us saying something like:

“I feel so blessed, every day, to have friends like you. I don’t feel like we need to exchange gifts in order to know that we love each other. Life is expensive. Can we all please agree to no longer exchange gifts and instead give each other the gift of no longer stressing over what to get everyone and worrying over money?”

I know that I was absolutely relieved to receive this email and so were the majority of my friends. Sometimes it just takes one brave person to state what she needs to find out that others have the same need.

There are so many money-saving gift exchange ideas to take the edge off feeling the pressure to spend: setting a dollar limit, drawing names and buying for one person, re-gifting only, spending time rather than spending money… Don’t be afraid to share your ideas with your friends and family. They may thank you for it.


This time of year can be very hectic. You may feel like you are being pulled in many directions. When your life is already busy, you now need to find time to shop, wrap, go to holiday parties, bake, cook, host parties, and so much more. When you are feeling rushed and overwhelmed, remember to BREATHE. This may sound ridiculous, but when we are feeling stressed or rushed, we often hold our breath without even realizing it.


Take a big breath in through your nose for a count of 7, hold it, then push it all out through your mouth for a count of 11.

This is called 7-11 breathing and it can feel fabulous! Even if you don’t count, just remember that your exhale is longer than your inhale. Really push it all out. When the air is crisp, this is one of my favorite things to do as soon as I walk outside.

Try it! When you breathe like this three times in a row, you will notice your shoulders relax a bit. Now, use your self-talk. Remind yourself that it is okay not to go to every party. It’s okay to say “no.”

Don’t be afraid to embrace the power of no! It’s always okay to decline an invitation and say, “I’m so sorry, I already have plans. Maybe next time.”

Remember, no one needs to know that your plans are to lay on your couch and watch a Hallmark Christmas movie. . . those are plans and plans for self-care are critically important.


There is inevitably more food around the holidays. This can bring on intense inner agony whether you have a sweet tooth or have an eating disorder. Keep up the self-talk!

“It is okay if I have a taste of something. I am not going to gain 10 pounds if I eat a piece of pie. That’s my irrational thinking.”

If it’s too difficult to face a big table of food, it is okay to remove yourself from the situation and have someone get a plate of “safe foods” - - foods that don’t trigger anxiety - - for you.

Ask for what you need.

It also helps to eat your regular meals during the day. It is a common practice to skip meals on the day leading up to a big holiday dinner. The thought is often, “I’m going to eat a lot later so I want to save my calories.” The problem with that mindset is that we’re actually much more likely to overeat or binge.

Make sure you eat at least a small one during the day before going to the holiday meal. You will be less likely to overeat.

If you do not struggle with these issues through the holiday season, that’s great! But please remember to be gentle with your friends and family members who do. Accept where they are and resist the urge to tell them how to feel differently.

One of my favorite Cheryl Strayed quotes is this:

“Compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all of the love you’ve got.”

And isn’t that what this season is really about?

For those who do not struggle with the holidays, I hope this article will help you understand and support your friends and family members who feel differently about the potential stress get-togethers and various festivities the winter season brings.

We are all in this together. Be compassionate. Share the love.


About the author:

Michelle Salerno is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor providing individual and couples counseling to teens and adults. She specializes in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, and the LGBTQ+ community. Michelle practices at Joi Counseling Center in Yorkville, Illinois.

You can reach out to Michelle via email at


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