The Most Common Issues People Bring Up In Therapy Around The Holidays

You're not alone if you're struggling with these, too. Here's how to deal.

Financial stress, grief, saying yes to too many events, and sky-high expectations can complicate any time of the year, but especially the pressure-filled Christmas and holiday season.

When it comes to holiday-related stressors, therapists say certain topics arise routinely at this point on the calendar.

“It’s something that comes up in a lot of my sessions,” said Sadaf Siddiqi, a psychotherapist and mental health consultant in New York City. “It probably started two weeks before Thanksgiving, that the anxiety around the holidays [sets] in.”

There are a number of things that people struggle with during this time of year. (Read: You are not alone if you aren’t holly-jolly right now.) Below, therapists share the biggest issues that come up in therapy during the holiday season:

A struggle to maintain personal boundaries

The holidays demand a lot from us, from time to money to energy. One way to take care of yourself is by setting boundaries — like saying no to events on certain days of the week or establishing a price limit for the gifts you’re buying.

Siddiqi said many of her clients come to therapy around this time of the year with the desire to establish and maintain their personal boundaries throughout the holidays.

“What I mean by personal boundaries are just knowing your own needs and limits,” said Siddiqi, “Like knowing what they are, knowing what you want to tolerate, what you need to feel good, what makes you not feel good.”

To feel your best, you may need to learn how to say no to certain holiday events or prioritise self-care and good sleep.

It’s OK to say no to events that don’t give you energy, added Meredith Van Ness, a psychotherapist and the owner of Meredith Van Ness Therapy in Colorado. If anything, it’s a valuable way to prioritise your personal boundaries this season.

Not feeling like they’re living up to their loved ones expectations — or their own

According to Justine Grosso, a psychologist in North Carolina, US, who also shares mental health insight on her Instagram account, many people struggle with outside expectations from friends, colleagues or family, while also dealing with internal expectations that they set for themselves.

“Whether it be cheery images depicted in media and advertisements or the unspoken rules of a family dynamic and traditions, people experience inner conflict about how to stay true to their own needs while balancing others’ wishes and expectations,” Grosso said.

This could manifest as “shoulds” — like “I should be happier to see my family members on Christmas” or “I should be done holiday shopping by now.”

Instead of leaning into “should” statements, Grosso said you can practice validating self-talk like “It makes sense that I feel anxious right now” and “Of course I would feel hurt and angry when so-and-so makes a judgmental comment.”

Additionally, Grosso said it’s helpful to go into the holidays with realistic expectations. You don’t need to have a perfect day, just a “good enough” holiday, which “can take overwhelm and stress out of the interactions,” she said.

A general desire to set (and stick to) a certain intention for the end of the year

Siddiqi said as the end of the year nears, she works with many of her clients to set an intention for how they want to feel when the holiday season is over.

“Usually people want to feel well rested and relaxed instead of burnt out and overcommitted,” Siddiqi explained. “When you think about holidays, what you crave is that feeling of restoration before the new year, like wrapping up the year nicely, but what ends up actually happening is that by December or by 5 January, people feel burnt out.”

Most people do not want to feel this way by the end of the festive season.

“I recommend that if you can commit to a short check-in with yourself on a daily basis to audit how you’re doing in the moment, you can actually get ahead of a problem before it spirals out of control,” she said.

This could just be a five-minute check-in where you ask yourself, “How do I feel in this moment?” and “What do I need to do to feel good today?” she said.

This is a way to infuse some self-care into your holiday and to ensure you’re staying on track for your intentions.

“Any kind of loss, it just feels harder to grieve at this time of year when everyone’s [supposed to be] so joyful and happy,” said psychotherapist Meredith Van Ness.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
“Any kind of loss, it just feels harder to grieve at this time of year when everyone’s [supposed to be] so joyful and happy,” said psychotherapist Meredith Van Ness.

Loneliness and isolation

Society sets the expectation that we all should have big, loving families and large, fun friend groups. And while some people do, it also just isn’t the reality for many.

“I think the loneliness is that not everyone has these picture-perfect families or picture-perfect situations,” Van Ness said, adding that loneliness and isolation are “a big area that people will talk about in the therapy office.”

People in these situations may find themselves not knowing who they’ll spend the holidays with or sad that they don’t have a friend group for a gift swap.

Overcommitment issues

While some groups of people deal with loneliness and isolation, others are faced with the opposite problem: overcommitment.

Siddiqi categorises this issue as a problem with social boundaries — which comes down to your engagement and interaction with others, whether they’re colleagues, friends, siblings or folks in religious or spiritual clubs you belong to.

“I think in the holidays, it’s very hard to not get sucked up into everything, even if it means you’re spending a lot of time on social media checking things — you’re kind of always overcommitting to everything,” Siddiqi said. “And so by the end of the year, you’re actually burnt out because you haven’t had a lot of ‘me’ time [or] down time until maybe like 26 December or 27 December.”

At that point, it can be too late because you’ve been “go, go, go” for so long, Siddiqi noted. She asks her clients to reflect on their actual capacity and limit before committing to too much.

Problems with family members

Often, holiday gatherings mean reunions with relatives near and far, whether you get along with your family members or not.

“Something that comes up frequently is just the way people interact with family members,” Siddiqi said. “I have so many clients who will say: ‘I know I’m going to run into my aunt. She always brings up this topic. I’m so triggered by it’ — especially people who have recently gone through a breakup, have lost a job, or are in the middle of a change or transition.”

It’s natural for folks to ask questions about your life after not seeing you for some time. But if you’re going through a tough change, those questions are likely unwelcome.

Additionally, lots of folks are estranged from certain family members and may have to face them for the first time in years at a holiday dinner. Or people may have someone in their family who triggers their anxiety or depression, Van Ness added.

“Past traumas can all intensify [during the] holiday season,” she explained. There are many smells, sights and sounds that are involved with the holidays, and these sensory experiences can bring traumas to the surface, she noted.

Tough feelings about being single

Siddiqi said that many single folks, whether recently single or not, struggle during this time of the year. “Cuffing season,” when single people couple up for the cold weather months, is in full swing, and being single at this time hits harder.

Single folks may be faced with difficult questions about past relationships from a well-meaning parent, or may just be dealing with the loneliness that can arise when you don’t have a plus-one to take to the season’s many social events.


According to Van Ness, grief is a common subject that comes up in therapy at this time of year.

“Whether it’s a recent loss or whether it’s an anniversary of a loss, that can bring up a lot of sadness,” Van Ness said. Beyond a death, Van Ness said loss related to divorce can make grief bubble up, too. Pet loss, job loss or friendship changes can also fall into this category.

“Any kind of loss, it just feels harder to grieve at this time of year when everyone’s [supposed to be] so joyful and happy,” Van Ness said.

To comfort your loved ones who are grieving, she said it’s a good idea to ask people how they’re doing and how they’re feeling — don’t assume everyone is as thrilled about the holidays as you are.

If you have issues like these, there are things you can do to take extra care of yourself

Suffice it to say, this season can be hard. If you find that you’re struggling, know that you aren’t alone. Many people secretly wish the “most wonderful time of the year” away.

In the meantime, Grosso said it’s important to “keep your routine or make time for self-care practices like mindfulness, exercise, and adequate sleep and nutrition.”

It could be a good idea to volunteer in your community, too. “This can foster feelings of gratitude and altruism, which are both positive for mental health,” Grosso noted.

To combat loneliness or sadness regarding a recent breakup, Siddiqi said you can try out services like Bumble BFF or other meet-up platforms to connect with people. You could also spend time with your chosen family if you’re estranged from your blood relatives, Grosso said.

“This is a great time to reach out to a therapist because a lot of people reach out in the new year,” Van Ness said. “So, it’s smart to get on a therapist waiting list now.”

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on