USC-MHS Learning Center

Holiday Cheer? It’s not always the most wonderful time of the year

By Margaret Domka 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… or at least that is the message. It seems to come at us from every direction around the winter holiday season. Television and radio ads, the music we listen to, the movies available, personal social media posts and more reflect that all in the world is perfect, everyone is celebrating, families get along perfectly and even if life is messy in other parts of the year, the spirit of the winter season holidays brings joy that overcomes any challenges we might be facing.

It’s ok and completely normal to feel burdened by the holidays and struggle to find joy.

Holiday Season Struggles

While the winter holidays do bring great joy for many, the experience of that joy may not be universal and emotions around the holidays can be complex. After all, there is a great deal of interruption to our everyday lives – even if the holidays are our favorite time of year, special meals are made, gifts are bought and wrapped, houses are cleaned, people often share housing accommodations with family members they are not used to living with, some have memories of loved ones lost recently or during previous holiday seasons, and particularly in a difficult economy the holidays also come with exaggerated financial burdens. Even amidst a celebration, there are likely to be some difficult emotions to process and moments that, although all is supposed to be right in the world, feel overwhelming. For some, especially those already experiencing mental health concerns, managing these emotions may be more difficult than for others.

Unfortunately, Christmas is consistently a time when there is a rise in suicide rates and mental health challenges can feel particularly burdensome1. While we celebrate this year, we may want to watch for warning signs that those around us may be experiencing mental health challenges and try to provide them with the most supportive environment possible. One of the ways we can do this is by increasing our awareness of the types of situations that may cause heightened emotional burden so that we can talk about them openly and help others understand that their emotions are okay and perfectly normal.

Sports Participation and Holiday Pressures

Snowman playing ice hockey

Young athletes are not free from the pressures that the holiday season may bring. Here are several examples of how participation in sports combined with holidays may cause them to struggle:

  • If there is a break from sports practices and competitions, athletes may miss their friends and the support of their social network.
  • Athletes may feel pressured to choose between going to sports practices and competitions or spending time with family. They may even feel responsible for the entire family’s ability to celebrate the holidays as desired and to follow family traditions if their sport interferes with plans.
  • The holiday season often leads to increased financial burden on families. Young athletes may feel their sport participation is responsible for some of this burden.
  • Many of us hope to get at least a little rest and relaxation during the holidays, and athletes may miss out on much needed rest when trying to balance sports commitments with family time.
  • With more family members visiting from out of town, there may be more guests attending sports events that could bring increased performance pressure to athletes.

We could provide many more examples, but the most important thing to remember is that the situations each athlete finds stressful and burdensome are very individual. We shouldn’t judge whether someone should be experiencing difficult emotions, but instead provide them with a space to express their emotions and support them through their challenges.  

How can you help?

There are many steps you can take to help an individual struggling around the holidays. Never underestimate the importance of your support – it may save your loved one’s life if they have had thoughts of suicide.

First and foremost, if you have immediate concerns about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:


or visit their website where they also offer an online chat with a counselor

Suicide Prevention Lifeline Website

There are a variety of other ways you can help individuals experiencing difficult emotions during the holidays, whether or not they are athletes.

  • One of the most important things you can do is start the conversation. It may seem awkward to bring up concerns about mental health, but it is a vital step that can help break down the stigma that may prevent someone from letting you know what they are experiencing. There is no single right way to do this, but if you have concerns, you can let them know that you have noticed behavioral or emotional changes and ask them if they would like to talk about it or share their feelings.
  • Accept the person where they are – do not judge them for having negative feelings. Instead, be open to listening to whatever their concerns may be. Try to avoid adverse reactions to their emotions such as shock, scolding, or eye rolling.
  • Let them know that it is ok to have complex and difficult emotions during the holidays. It is perfectly normal to have high expectations and to feel disappointment when those expectations aren’t met – or to feel sadness or loneliness, whether the house is full of people or empty. Sometimes even the person experiencing the emotions may not understand why they feel that way – it could have nothing to do with the holidays, but the change in schedules and increased holiday activities may be enough to cause other emotions that are present and manageable in everyday life to become more difficult to cope with. The complex emotions one feels at this time of year can make them feel further guilt, burden, or increased distance from others if they believe the season is supposed to only bring joy.
  • If sports practices must be missed for family events, or family events must be missed for sports, talk with the athlete about how that makes them feel. Again, let them know that these emotions are okay. If the athlete needs to make decisions regarding which event(s) to take part in, help them understand the benefits and drawbacks of each choice, and then be supportive rather than critical of the decision they make.
  • If a young person may feel like their sports participation causes a financial burden, consider having a family conversation about the family’s current financial status, how everyone can work together to control spending, and what activities are most important to each person to maintain. Recognize each person’s contributions to the effort and let young athletes know that they are not the cause of the financial strain2.
  • Avoid making promises that can’t be kept. For example, if an athlete is disappointed about missing a family event for a competition, avoid saying things like, “You’ll have a great time at the competition once you’re there and you won’t even remember you’re missing the family event.” Instead, acknowledge that is difficult to miss things and encourage them to enjoy the event they are going to even though they may feel some sadness about missing the other event. You might also consider asking that person if there is something you can do to make the experience easier. That might be arranging a special meal on a different day or even setting up a special virtual call with loved ones.
  • Promote the person to accept any emotions they are feeling and to look for happy moments rather than happy events or an entire happy winter holiday season. We are bombarded by messages that we are supposed to be happy all the time during the holidays but expecting ourselves to experience nonstop happiness is not realistic and brings a lot of pressure. Reminding someone who is struggling to look for just one or two small individual joyful moments, however temporary, can help relieve them of an unrealistic expectation and appreciate those moments when they occur.
  • For someone struggling with mental health issues, spending a lot of time with people, and putting on a happy face may be very tiring. Try to plan for some down time to give the person time to relax away from all the hustle and bustle if that is desired. When the days are packed full of endless celebrations, the stress and emotions may become overwhelming. Know that it’s ok if the person needs to step away from it all at times. Do check on them and make sure they are okay and are not considering inflicting harm on self or others, but also allow them space to re-energize. If you know being around people is taking tremendous effort on their part, acknowledge the efforts they are making and provide positive feedback for their accomplishments in making it through each part of the holidays.

What you CAN DO matters!

The most important thing to remember is that what is the most wonderful time of the year for some is extremely difficult for others. We all need to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of those around us and avoid judging the emotions of others. We may not ever be able to fully understand someone else’s emotions, even if that person is a close family member, because we cannot step into their shoes and feel what they feel. However, we CAN acknowledge when they are experiencing difficult emotions, we CAN start the conversation about their feelings and mental health, we CAN listen and avoid judgement, we CAN reaffirm that experiencing a spectrum of emotions is normal, and we CAN let them know that we are always there to support them.

This holiday season, let’s focus on everything we CAN do to make it the best experience possible while realizing we live in an imperfect world with imperfect lives!

The USC-MHS would like to wish you and all of your loved ones a special holiday season in which you celebrate all the happy moments!

  1. Levi-Belz, Y., Gvion, Y., & Apter, A. (2019). The psychology of suicide: From research understandings to intervention and treatment. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 214.
  2. University of Illinois Extension (n.d.). Getting Through Tough Financial Times.

"It is OK not to be OK." 

EVERYONE has mental health. We should never be ashamed to START THE CONVERSATION. Let's end the STIGMA in sport environments. At the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport, we are continually looking for more ways to support individuals' mental health regardless of where they currently fall on the mental health continuum. MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS!

Official Mental Health & Wellness Partner of:

American Youth Soccer OrganizationNebraska State Soccer Logo
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