Holiday Season and Mental Health: Embracing the Power of Saying “No”


For two holiday seasons, many parents pared down celebrations. They trimmed guest lists—not as fun as trimming a tree—or clinked mugs of hot cider and cocoa with colleagues during the office’s Zoom holiday happy hour. It remains to be seen exactly how the 2022 holiday season will go as COVID-19 remains a part of our lives. But normalcy is seen everywhere: The lack of mask-wearing, a return to full-time in-person learning, and even the return to offices at least part-time for some. It’s likely not going out on a limb to predict the holidays will follow suit. The opportunity to hug and see friends and family in person may bring you comfort and joy this holiday season. But some mental health care providers worry the return of the in-person holiday social calendar may be particularly stressful this year after two years of lower-key celebrations. “Some parents expressed relief at not having to be as busy as usual or not having to deal with family drama,” says Traci S. Williams, Psy.D., ABPP, CFT-I, an Atlanta-based board-certified psychologist. “COVID also became an excuse, as some parents admitted to me, to get out of attending events. Now, we’re getting used to life without restrictions.” Dr. Williams is also already seeing pressure to make up for the pandemic-induced lost time in her practice, which can compound the already-stressful holidays. Here, she and other mental health providers explain why we should be embracing the power of normalizing the word “no”—and how to say it without sounding like a Scrooge this season.

Why the Holidays Are Stressful (Especially for Moms)

A 2006 American Psychological Association survey stated what, to many moms, continues to be the obvious: Women experience more stress during the holidays than men. The survey found that nearly half (44%) of women noticed an uptick in their stress levels during the holidays, compared to 31% of men. “Women tend to carry the ‘invisible load’ for the family,” says Dr. Williams, referring to the mental and emotional burden of planning and making everyday decisions for the family, such as scheduling doctor’s appointments. The burden gets heavier during the holidays. “Combine the invisible load with planning and executing holiday events for the extended family, children, schools, and the workplace, and it is totally understandable why mothers are stressed out and exhausted,” Dr. Williams says. After all, someone has to coordinate the holiday photo shoot and figure out where the Elf on the Shelf goes next—and that usually falls on moms. Michele Goldman, Psy.D., a New York-based psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor, says the holidays are also stressful because of the pressure to be perfect. “There is an extreme amount of pressure we place on ourselves that the food has to be perfect and we need to get the perfect gift,” says Dr. Goldman. Sometimes, challenging family dynamics can turn the heat up higher. “Family dynamics can be a large source of stress, whether it be children returning from college, doing our best to have gifts for our little kiddos, or navigating relationships with in-laws,” adds Dr. Goldman. “The holidays can be a time where there are a lot of personalities to manage.”

The Importance of Saying “No”

When you overfill a pressure cooker, the food can lose flavor and texture. When you overfill your holiday schedule, the season can lose its joy and leave a bad taste in your mouth in the process. Experts say this is why the two-letter word “no” is such a powerful tool this time of year. “When we say ‘no’ to something, we also create space for a yes,” says Ashurina Ream, Psy.D., an Arizona-based licensed clinical psychologist and founder of online mental health resource Psyched Mommy. “When we decline an invitation, this provides space for downtime or margin. It’s necessary to create this space so parents are able to process the overwhelming sensory input that accompanies parenting, especially during the holidays.” Dr. Ream says people can be afraid to exert their power by saying no, fearing they’ll offend someone. But she’s noticed that, often, the opposite is true. “Saying no is a great boundary to have,” Dr. Ream says. “It teaches others how they can interact with us. It’s a reminder that our needs are important, and we can avoid doing things that don’t provide joy.” And it provides a valuable lesson to our children who are watching. “Saying no teaches our children they can do the same,” Dr. Ream says. “It allows us and our children to take a break from the often glamorized hustle and grind mentality and instead prioritize intentional pauses.”

How to Say “No”

Dr. Ream says it’s important to remember that “no” is a full sentence that does not require a further explanation. “Most often, ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’ will do,” Dr. Ream says. “We often feel the pressure to over-explain why we need to opt out, but the reality is sometimes we just don’t feel like doing something. We don’t need to write a thesis.” But if those quick responses feel a bit too short, there are other ways to soften the blow of a decline. Dr. Ream and others shared top tips.

Respond Promptly

You may be dreading RSVPing no to something. “Sometimes we drag it out because we want to avoid it, and we feel guilty,” Dr. Goldman says. But Dr. Williams says it’s best to rip off the Band-Aid for you and your host. “Reply as soon as you can,” Dr. Williams says. “Prolonging the inevitable can be stressful for you, and your sender may be waiting on responses to finalize their plans.”

Make it Positive

“No” carries a negative connotation. But Dr. Williams says leading with a positive statement can help soften the blow. She recommends trying something along the lines of, “Thanks for thinking to include us” or “That sounds like fun,” before stating that you have to bow out. “This lets your inviter know that they aren’t the reason you’re declining and that you appreciate the request,” Dr. Williams says.

Keep it Short

Saying a bit more than “no” doesn’t mean you need to write an entire novel explaining why you’ll have to skip your kid’s friend’s mom’s potluck. “It’s OK to be brief,” Dr. Williams says. “You’re busy, and they’re likely busy, too.” Dr. Goldman agrees. She suggests statements like, “Thank you so much for the offer. We wish we could make it, but will, unfortunately, have to pass. We’ll be missing you.” Or: “I’m sad that we will have to miss out on the fun. Please send along pictures so we can enjoy the day from afar.”

Offer an Alternative

There are only so many weekends in a holiday season (four between Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah in 2022—but who is counting?). Come the New Year, you may have some free space on your schedule. If the person is someone you’d like to see but simply can’t during the holidays, offer to follow up after. Dr. Ream recommends saying, “This particular month has so much going on. I’d love to catch up when things slow down.” If you know of a good month for you, state it in the message. “This helps to maintain your relationship and gives you both something to look forward to,” adds Dr. Ream. And it’s a way to turn that dreaded no into “yes, but later.”

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