Crop faceless woman drinking tea and sitting near Christmas tree

Thriving Through the Holidays: Coping Strategies for Neurodivergent Adults

The holiday season can be (should be?) a time of joy, celebration, and togetherness. However, for neurodivergent people, this time of year can present unique challenges that may impact their well-being and ability to fully participate in the festivities. These challenges can put a damper on the fun, but if you go into the season with a plan and your own coping strategies, you can find joy and happiness.

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Challenges Faced by Neurodivergent Adults During the Holidays

Neurodivergent people, including those with conditions such as autism, anxiety, ADHD, and sensory processing disorders, often encounter a range of challenges during the holiday season. The increased social demands, sensory overstimulation, and disruptions to routine can lead to heightened stress and anxiety. All of that can have a negative impact on many areas of life.

In addition, your executive function skills, which are responsible for planning, organizing, and managing time, may be significantly impacted. The extra demands and obligations can make it difficult to navigate the complexities of the holiday season. Struggles with time management, organization, and decision-making can make it hard to keep track of multiple commitments, plan and execute holiday activities, and cope with unexpected changes to routines. This can lead to increased stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, impacting the overall holiday experience.

On top of that, the pressure to socialize, attend gatherings, and engage in small talk can be particularly daunting for neurodivergent people, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation.  Then there’s the sensory overload that often accompanies holiday events. The bright lights, loud music, and crowded spaces can be overwhelming and exhausting for those with sensory processing differences. As a result, many neurodivergent adults may find themselves struggling to fully participate in and enjoy the holiday festivities.

christmas, champagne, wine

Effective Holiday Planning Techniques 

One way neurodivergent people can navigate the holiday season with greater ease is to implement effective holiday planning techniques tailored to their unique needs. What does this look like? I suggest starting with a detailed holiday calendar that includes all planned activities, social gatherings, and commitments. In order to be prepared, you need to know what’s on the schedule.

Breaking down each event into manageable steps and allocating specific times for preparation and recovery can help mitigate the impact of cognitive burden (mental load) and prevent feelings of being overwhelmed by the holiday schedule. Even though you have all of the events on a calendar, you only have to worry about each of the small steps, one after the other. You don’t have to look at the whole picture all the time.

What do I mean by manageable steps? Going to the office holiday party might entail bringing a potluck dish and a grab bag gift. One step will be to brainstorm gift ideas. The next step will be to order (or go to the store to purchase) the gift. The last step is to wrap the gift. For the dish, you need to decide on what to bring. Do you like to cook? If not, bring something that you ordered elsewhere. If you enjoy cooking, choose a dish that’s easy for you to make. Buy the ingredients, and add the cooking day or time to your calendar. 

Utilizing visual aids, such as color-coded calendars, checklists, and reminders, can help organization and time management skills because they provide a clear and structured framework for navigating the holiday season. For some people, they like the color-coded items because they’re “pretty.” Their brains connect with the aesthetic. However, even if you’re not a craftsy person, color-coding will help you recognize things that are out of the norm for you, so you’re less likely to miss them.

Establishing flexible routines and incorporating regular breaks for self-care and sensory regulation can make the holiday season more enjoyable. By prioritizing rest, relaxation, and sensory-friendly activities, you can better manage your energy levels and emotional well-being. By managing the stress, you reduce the risk of burnout and overwhelm, which in turn, will allow you to enjoy more.

Crop faceless woman drinking tea and sitting near Christmas tree

Practical Coping Strategies for Managing Holiday Overwhelm

In the face of holiday overwhelm, you can benefit from a range of practical coping strategies to navigate the challenges and maintain a sense of balance and well-being. Having plans in place before you’re overwhelmed is the key. Once you know what to do, what steps to take, when the stress hits, you’ll be able to bounce back quicker.

One effective approach is to practice mindfulness and grounding techniques to manage sensory overload and regulate emotional responses to stress. The following techniques can recenter your mind and body, giving you a much-needed sense of calm:

  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Sensory grounding

Make sure to set clear boundaries and communicate your needs to friends and family members. This can help reduce social pressure. 

When attending a party or event, ask the host or look for a quiet space for when sensory input becomes overwhelming. If you’re with a friend, maybe create a signal when you need a break (or escape). Also consider utilizing tools such as noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, or weighted blankets to manage sensory sensitivities and promote a sense of comfort and security in challenging environments. 

By proactively integrating these coping tools and strategies into holiday activities, you can enhance your ability to participate in and enjoy the festivities while minimizing the impact of sensory overwhelm and anxiety.

Thriving through the holidays: Coping Strategies for Neurodivergent Adults

Nurturing Executive Functioning 

Even in the best of circumstances, if you’re neurodivergent, you probably struggle with at least some of the executive functioning skills. When the chaos of the holidays hits, your executive functioning will take a hit too. So it’s important to plan ahead and nurture those skills so that your systems and routines don’t totally fall apart.

Self-care plays a crucial role in nurturing your executive functioning skills and promoting a sense of balance and well-being during the holiday season. Engaging in regular self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, or creative pursuits, can help manage stress, regulate emotions, and enhance cognitive resilience, supporting the effective functioning of executive skills. If your body doesn’t feel good, you’ll have a harder time managing stress, and your difficulties will increase.

Incorporating mindfulness practices, such as meditation, deep breathing, or guided imagery, can promote greater self-awareness and emotional regulation. Part of feeling overwhelmed is that your emotions are a mess. Learning to take a step back and breathe will help you manage those big emotions. Incorporating mindfulness will help you be present to be able to enjoy time with family and friends.You’ll feel more in control and your executive functioning won’t be quite as taxed. 

Prioritizing rest, nutrition, and sensory self-regulation can support the overall emotional well-being of neurodivergent people (and everyone really). Again, if your mind and body feel good, then dealing with the demands of the holidays will be easier. 

Your executive function skills are weaker when you can’t focus. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be more likely to maintain the systems and routines you use to manage your executive functioning. 

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Creating Inclusive and Sensory-Friendly Holiday Environments

To help everyone involved during the holiday season, you should consider creating some neurodivergent-friendly environments. As a host, provide quiet spaces, limit sensory stimuli (like bright lights and loud music), and offer alternative activities to support the comfort and participation of neurodivergent guests.

You can also offer alternative seating options, sensory-friendly activities, and visual schedules, which will foster a sense of belonging and inclusivity.

If you’re a guest and neurodivergent, you might want to consider educating others about your neurodiversity. Most people are willing to make adjustments if they’re aware of issues. However, many neurotypical people don’t know where to start. If you offer some guidance, you will be not only helping yourself, but also other neurodivergent guests who might not speak up.

In a perfect world, sharing your thoughts, feelings, and needs with others is an easy task. I know some of you can’t educate those around you for various reasons. When that happens, it’s paramount that you have a plan for yourself as you engage in holiday activities.

Educating Peers and Family Members

If you are in a position to educate others, here are some tips and guidelines to help. Open and honest communication is the most important. Explain the impact of sensory sensitivities, executive function differences, and social communication challenges you have. Your neurotypical peers may not “get it.” They don’t know what the challenges are, so it’s helpful for you to outline them.

Encourage open dialogue and mutual learning within social and familial circles. Doing so can create opportunities for other neurodivergent people to share their experiences and express their needs. By engaging in open and empathetic conversations, peers and family members can gain valuable insights and understanding into the unique perspectives and strengths of neurodivergent people. The more people understand, the more likely they will be to make adjustments so everyone can have an enjoyable time.

While the holiday season can present unique challenges for neurodivergent people, through the use of effective planning and coping strategies, they can enjoy a full and happy holiday experience. 

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