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Cognitive Therapy for the Holidays

How cognitive therapy can help with holiday stress.

Key points

  • Automatic negative thoughts can increase stress, whether a situation is objectively stressful or not.
  • During the holidays, many people's stress starts to spiral out of control due to snowballing responsibilities and negative thought cycles.
  • Cognitive therapy can help counter negative thoughts during the holidays, thus keeping stress levels manageable.
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay
Source: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

The start of November always signals the beginning of the holiday season to me, particularly being in the United States. The holidays can be very stressful for people. More parties, family events, financial demands, and shorter days can all contribute to feeling more stressed than the rest of the year. In this post, I’ll talk about using cognitive therapy techniques to cope with this stress. Even though I’ve left out the behavioral techniques, they can still be helpful as well.

Tackling Stress by Tackling Thoughts

The various events and demands of the holiday season can trigger negative, automatic thoughts. While some stressors are better dealt with via behavior, such as avoiding the stress-triggering event, addressing the negative automatic thoughts can also help reduce the amount of stress.

How we think about something can affect how we feel. Even if something is objectively stressful, challenging negative thoughts about the event can help keep the stress from spiraling out of control.

In cognitive therapy, the first step is identifying the negative thoughts. This is followed by challenging those thoughts and then coming up with a more realistic alternative.

Some holiday-specific examples are below. Each alternative thought is only an example and it is important to make sure that any alternative is tailored specifically to what is true for you and your situation.

Automatic thought: "I have to go to the company holiday party."
Alternative thought: "I don’t have to do something just because someone asks."
How the alternative helps: Supports setting boundaries.

Automatic thought: "My sister-in-law said my cake was dry and I’m just a home baker."
Alternative thought: "Just because someone says something nasty about me doesn’t mean it’s true."
How the alternative helps: Prevents someone else’s negative judgment from becoming part of how you view yourself.

Automatic thought: "I should go see my family during the holidays even though I’m not comfortable flying."
Alternative thought: "I’m not a bad daughter/son/sibling because I'm not comfortable seeing them in person."
How the alternative helps: Supports taking care of your health.

Automatic thought: "I’m pathetic because I don’t have anyone with whom to spend the holidays."
Alternative thought: "Just because I don’t have someone to spend these holidays with doesn’t mean I won’t have someone in the future. I still have friends I can see."
How the alternative helps: Supports feeling hopeful.

Of course, if you notice that you are having trouble coping with negative thoughts on your own, please reach out to a mental health professional; you can find one in the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. The exact negative thoughts are going to be specific to the person, as are the realistic alternative thoughts. However, learning to challenge these negative, automatic thoughts can help keep the holiday stress at a manageable level.