The holiday season can feel a bit inescapable.
Before smartphones and social media, it was possible to get away for a bit.
Go home, turn on a non-holiday movie or mixed tape (remember those?), and take a break from the idea that you’re supposed to be holly and jolly when you’re actually feeling anything but.
In 2022, sales at some Big Box retailers like Walmart and Target have started earlier than ever—as in the first four days of October.
Social media feeds are full of people heading out in flannels for UPick tree adventures. Families snap photos in perfectly coordinated (but not quite matchy-matchy) Christmas sweaters. Holiday cards have professional photos.
It’s no secret that the holidays can be stressful. When you add in social media, that stress can be multiplied.
Here’s how to turn down the noise of your not-so-festive feed and regain a bit of calm this holiday season.
Social media and stress
Research from 2017 showed that social media use was not an indicator of increased mental health issues and that concerns about social media use and stress were “misplaced.”
However, other studies contradict this.
A 2021 Express VPN survey of 4,500 Americans and Europeans ages 16 to 24 suggested that 86 percent of respondents said that social media directly impacted their happiness. In the same survey, 81 percent reported social media impacted their feelings of loneliness, and 79 percent said the same about depression.
A 2022 cross-national survey indicated that people who used social media to reduce loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic actually experienced poorer mental health.
Another study of nearly 1,800 U.S. adults ages 19 to 32 from that same year suggested a link between social media use and increased depression.
The Holidays and stress
A 2015 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey suggested that 64 percent of respondents said they felt the “holiday blues,” with 24 percent saying, “the holidays affect them a lot.”
Holiday blues may feel like:
Grief and loss can exacerbate these feelings.
In 2021, a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults indicated that over one-third of respondents didn’t want to celebrate the holidays because of feelings of grief or loss.
The double whammy of social media during the holidays
Experts share that, combined, social media and the holidays don’t always go together like vanilla ice cream and warm apple pie.
Though there’s no research to back the idea that social media can increase stress, isolation, and fear of missing out (FOMO) during the holidays, experts share it can. Here’s why.
Social media is disruptive
Gooding says push notifications can become a steady flow of reminders about the holidays.
During the holidays, these notifications mean you’re one tap away from seeing a friend’s holiday family photo shoot.
This can feel like a blow if you recently experienced a break-up, loss of a loved one, or a miscarriage.
Social media prevents us from enjoying the present
You may enjoy specific events like watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with your dog on Christmas Eve or celebrating all eight nights of Hanukkah with your grandma.
However, Gooding says that scrolling through your social media feed in a spare moment between lighting the Menorah and dinner can prevent you from truly cherishing the moment.
Comparison steals joy
Meghan Marcum, the chief psychologist for AMFM Healthcare, says social media isn’t all Bah Humbug.
Especially during the pandemic, it allows people to stay in touch, including doing so safely during the holidays.
Social media is “constantly creating a space for us to compare, contrast, and judge ourselves against the world,” Marcum says. “Trying to keep up with the picture-perfect holiday Instagram posts we see online can be exhausting and directs our efforts toward likes or followers that we may not have even met outside of social media.”
How to avoid social media-induced FOMO during the holidays
Whether you love the holidays, get stressed by them, or fall somewhere in the middle, you deserve to feel your version of comfort and joy.
Here’s how to avoid the negative pull of social media so you can enjoy your holiday.
Focus on your why
Taish Malone, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health, says that the “reason for the season” will look different to everyone.
She invites people to think about what they love about the holidays and where they can find joy before the season starts.
Perhaps you love crafting and decorating. Others may enjoy seeing family from across the country, and some may look forward to quiet Christmas mornings with just a significant other.
None of these feelings are wrong.
Being confident in your personal values and feelings about certain types of holiday activities can minimize envy or comparison guilt if you see a friend doing the opposite.
“Life is what you take from it,” says Malone. “Social media, like any and everything, reflects you. You can take what you need from it or what benefits you and release the rest that doesn’t serve you.”
Similar to reminding yourself about your values, practicing gratitude can help reframe the comparison and self-judgment often elicited by social media.
“The holidays are a great restart for many to reestablish practices of gratitude, set personal goals, assess growth and lessons learned, and connect more,” says Malone.
Establish boundaries offline and stick to them
After deciding what’s most important to you during the holidays, de-prioritize what isn’t.
Malone says this involves setting boundaries and sticking to them, regardless of what Instagram influencers or Facebook ads convey as the “perfect must-have” for the holidays.
“Ensure you’re involving yourself in things that align with your values,” Malone says. That way, you’ll feel energized and excited about activities, instead of dreading them.
It’s OK to give a short and sweet “no” RSVP to a party. No is a full sentence.
Scroll past posts that elicit negative emotions
Perhaps your friend said no to your party.
After you clean up from your gathering, which was fun without her, you log onto Facebook and see photos of her at a bash with a work friend that you didn’t even know about. It can sting and steal your joy.
Marcum knows it can be tempting to type a passive-aggressive—or direct—comment. Leave it in your drafts and delete it, Malone says.
Engaging with posts that make you angry or jealous will only exacerbate negative feelings.
Pare down social media use
The aforementioned 2018 study of 143 undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania suggested limiting social media use to about 30 minutes daily could significantly improve well-being.
Instead, Marcum suggests limiting social media use to 30 minutes to two hours per day during the holidays.
Consider tracking your screen time. If you have an iPhone, there’s a built-in tracker that sends weekly reports. It can be broken down by app use and even notes on how you felt.
Gooding suggests asking yourself:
- How does social media use make me feel?
- Do I act differently on days I am scrolling for long periods of time on social media?
- Has it impacted my anxiety or mood?
- Is it affecting relationships with important people in my life?
- Is it impacting productivity in my work?
- Does it impact my self-esteem?
- What function does my social media usage serve for you?
“If you’re overwhelmed, it is OK to take a break so you can prioritize the true friends and people in your life,” Malone says.
Remind yourself social media is a highlight reel
Malone says it’s common for people to look at their social media feeds and feel like everyone is having a great time except for them.
Keep in mind: your friend’s kid may have had a complete meltdown during that picture-perfect holiday shoot. That old high school classmate with the decked-out halls may have recently lost a job.
“Everything you see is not all there is to see,” Malone says. “People tend to portray their most favorable pictures, videos, and life highlights.”
Check in on others
You may feel alone, but you likely aren’t. The holidays can be stressful for anyone and everyone, regardless of what they post on social media.
“Others feel more isolated, forgotten, discouraged, and hopeless [during the holidays],” Malone says. “I would suggest that everyone check in on their friends and family during the holidays.”
Doing so can allow you to find common ground, and you and your friend will feel less isolated, Malone says.
A 2015 study had 30-friend pairs (60 women total) view photos that evoked positive, negative, and neutral emotions. The results suggested that the women felt more positive when they knew a friend was looking at the same emotion-evoking photo, indicating that social sharing of emotions could improve feelings.
Though it’s tempting to participate in social sharing during the holidays, Gooding suggests putting the phone down and being present in the moment.
It will also help you engage with people or the environment around you, boosting your mood and helping you feel more comfortable with your decisions about the holidays.
If your most recent scroll of social media has you feeling down, Gooding suggests logging a 30-minute workout.
She says physical activity can:
- reduce stress
- improve sleep
- boost mood
- increase energy
“Reducing social media usage over the holidays in combination with increased physical activity allows for an individual to better engage with their environment and [have] more opportunities for positive interactions,” says Gooding.
When to get help
Malone knows the holidays can be challenging. She says there’s no shame in seeking help during this time—or ever.
“I always advocate for seeking a professional counselor or therapist if you find that you aren’t adjusting well to life stressors,” she says. “Social media exposure symptoms are no different, especially during the holidays.”
You can find therapists through:
- family and friend referrals
- healthcare providers
Constant notifications and images of friends having big parties or perfectly snapped photo shoots can make people feel like they aren’t celebrating in the “right” way.
Still, there’s no “correct” way to spend the holiday, and it’s important to figure out what brings you joy. Creating priorities and boundaries can help you hone in on what’s important.