How to Shake 'Holiday Gift' Anxiety

Experts share tips for avoiding anxiety during the holiday gift-giving season.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
6 min read

When Dec. 1 strikes and the holidays loom, the list of gifts you need to buy grows. And so does your anxiety. Will my sister-in-law really like a hot pink scarf? Will the DVD I bought my father measure up to the gift my brother gave him? And how in the name of all that is wrapped in a big red bow can a person make it through to January with his wallet and sanity still intact? For most of us, it's enough to call a moratorium on the holidays.

But what to our wondering eyes should appear but tips from experts who tell WebMD how to survive the wrapping paper mayhem of gift giving and receiving and dig deep for some cheer and spirit.

"The holidays are supposed to be a time full of joy and cheer, parties and family gatherings," says James Radack, vice president of public affairs for the National Mental Health Association. "But many factors help make the holidays so stressful: fatigue, unrealistic expectations, commercialization, financial constraints, and the inability to be with one's family and friends."

Wrapped up in shiny paper with each one of these factors is the act of gift giving. Among its negative aspects: Gift giving makes us tired and the people we buy for are sometimes unhappy with their gifts. It can also be a drain on our finances. And often we have to ship the gifts by mail, taking the joy out of giving all together.

This year, before the anxiety sets in and your list of gifts grows longer, approach your shopping from a different angle. Instead of wrapping until your fingers bleed and your wallet is empty, put some thought into it. Here are tips on the art of giving:

Pick a name, any name. "Do a gift exchange where you pick a name of a family member out of a hat and buy a present for only that person," says Radack, instead of stressing yourself out by buying for all 30 people in your family. Incidentally, this will also help you stick to a budget.

You guessed it ... stick to a budget. When it comes to making it through the holidays with your head above water, the first thing you should do is plan ahead. Start socking away money in January for the upcoming season. Next, pick a number that doesn't make you cringe, and use it as a budget. Create an account specifically for the holidays, put a set amount in it, and when it's empty, you're done. And remember that a good gift doesn't have to cost a lot.

"As for gift giving, something thoughtful is always welcome and does not have to be expensive," says Radack. "Finances have a huge impact on stress because there are so many expectations when it comes to presents, whether it's at work or with family or friends. It definitely adds to the stress of the holidays, and even after, if people spend beyond their means."

Ask! Instead of just buying willy-nilly, here's a novel idea: Ask your friends and family what they want. You might be surprised.

"Have a frank discussion about gift giving with the people on your list," says Jo Robinson, co-author of Unplug the Christmas Machine. "You want to do more than go through the mechanisms of Christmas. You want to bring people closer together, delight young children, create a beautiful home environment, choose exquisitely appropriate gifts, and on and on."

Be creative. Remember that a gift doesn't always need to wrapped, and the gift of time is cherished.

"Spending hours in holiday traffic buying gifts for people who don't need them is an exercise in frustration," Robinson tells WebMD. "Perhaps some people would prefer to spend more time together rather than exchange wrapped gifts. Others might prefer a donation to charity or simply a Christmas card or phone call. Find some way to show love for family and friends beyond gift-giving. Saying appreciative words, being more warm and accepting, helping out, or overlooking faults can spread holiday cheer better than the most elaborate table setting, festive drink, or gift."

Don't get competitive. "So many people feel like they need to buy an expensive gift for someone because last year the person bought them an expensive gift, and this year they need to make up for it," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif. who specializes in family therapy.

"Or they're competing with a family member who always buys expensive gifts." Either way, it's a recipe for holiday disaster. Give because you want to make someone happy, not because you want to win.

The act of receiving gifts is also an art, and admittedly, some of us are much better at it than others. While one person cringes when they open a badly wrapped fruit cake from Aunt Matilda, another jumps for joy -- even though it's moldy. But keep in mind, the holidays are never perfect, and neither are all of the gifts you'll open.

"Most people feel a lot of pressure to give the perfect gift, create the perfect holiday, and make every holiday like a Norman Rockwell painting," Berman tells WebMD. "But the truth is that the realities of the holidays are imperfect, and if you can accept the imperfections of the holidays, you can relax and enjoy them more."

When you get a gift and it meows and hisses, a la the Griswold family in the movie Christmas Vacation, here are tips on how to handle it well:

Simply smile. "Whatever you get, simply say, 'I'm so glad you were thinking of me and it means so much to me that you took the time and effort to pick this out and it's wonderful,'" says Robinson.

When you're empty handed. "The hard thing is to accept a gift when you haven't gotten something for the person who gave you one," says Robinson. "So you respond with, 'It's really wonderful, you're such a generous person. I didn't expect this and thank you so much.' Resist the urge to go out and make it even-steven -- that's not what it's about."

When you really don't like it. "Miss Etiquette would tell you if it's the wrong size, it doesn't fit, it's the wrong color, don't ask 'Where did you get it so I can return it?'" says Robinson. "I think that is all pretty rude. You thank them for what they did and you appreciate it. If you're going to take it back, don't mention it and don't make them feel inadequate for it."

Driving around like a maniac trying to shop until you drop isn't necessarily the way to go. Instead, get organized, be flexible, and give because you mean it.

"Organization and flexibility are the keys to getting it all done," says Berman, who hosts a nightly call in radio show called On the Couch. "If someone doesn't get their gift by Christmas or Hanukkah, give it a few days later. Most adults are pretty flexible, and if they can't be flexible, they probably don't deserve your gift anyway. People forget that gifts are supposed to be given from the heart -- not because of obligation."

Whether you're on the giving or receiving end, remember that the holidays are so much more than wrapping and unwrapping.

"Spend just five minutes writing down what is most meaningful to you about the holiday season," says Robinson. "With your wishes and values clearly in mind, you can make spontaneous choices throughout the season that will add to your contentment and joy."