The holiday season is ripe for trouble – unrealistic expectations and overburdened schedules can lead to mental distress. Now add the electronic equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

“There is this drive to have our lives look like a television commercial.  The unrealistic nature of that can lead to a host of problems.  What people are striving for is virtually impossible, unattainable.  Yet many of us look around and feel that we are failing somehow,” explains Erin Nelson, PsyD, an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.

“Unnecessary pressure around the holidays is not a new concept,” Nelson said. “However, nowadays, we have the whole parallel phenomenon of social media that can definitely compound the problem. You look externally for cues about what your holiday season ‘should’ be. People look at Facebook and think, ‘Wow, that other person’s life is great! Their family is perfect. They are having all kinds of fun, they’re doing all these great things.  I’m not as happy as they are.’ We get such a skewed sense of what’s going on in the world around us.”

So, we all need to realize the proverbial slippery slope. Nelson said, “Sometimes we need to actually, literally, stop and focus on being aware of the difference between reality and what’s portrayed. Nobody’s life is really like that commercial.  No matter how perfect your friends’ Facebook news feed appears to be.” We all struggle in one way or another.

Nelson warns that the holidays have built in pressures – economic, familial and more – all of which can be exacerbated by exaggerated expectations.

What can you do?

“The good news is – there are very real steps that people can take to help abate undue pressure and recapture the positive aspects of the holiday season,” Nelson said.

To begin, actively taking time to appreciate the good things in your life.  Intentionally focusing your attention and energy away from negative messages can go a long way.  Likewise, directing your attention toward prosocial activity – engaging your community – these simple steps can have a dramatic impact on a person’s outlook and mood.

“It sounds cliché to say “take time for yourself” — and of course that is much easier said than done — but it really is especially important at a time like the holidays,” she said. “Actively engaging in some form of self-care, taking a walk, getting a massage, reading a book. Whatever it is for you – self-care is even more important when you’re anticipating stress ahead.”

Time and economic pressures seem to overwhelm but even a quick timeout, a call to a friend, or rechanneling energy can do wonders, according to the American Psychological Association.