Identifying the Source of Stress During the Holidays


Healthy Living - December 15, 2015
David Prescott, PhD - Acadia Hospital
Not Everyone is Stressed at Holiday Time 
dr-prescott.jpgResearch suggests that emotions experienced during the holiday season frequently include an increase in positive emotions such as happiness, love, and high spirits.  This seems especially true for younger people (those under age 30) who are more likely to report a decrease in stress during the holidays.  However, for others, keeping stress at a manageable level should be a key ingredient of your holiday planning. 
If You Are Experiencing Stress, What is the Cause?
In addition to the relatively common holiday related stressors, such as lack of time or financial pressures, the holidays may bring special challenges or circumstances which lead to heightened feelings of loneliness, depression, or anxiety.  Pinpointing the cause, or causes, or your stress helps identify more productive ways to address it.
Doing Things which Lack Personal Meaning:  Most people find that they can cope with stressful situations when the situation is personally meaningful.  For example, we don’t mind working hard for a cause we believe in.  Yet, around the holidays people often find they are spending much time and energy doing things which really don’t reflect their true beliefs about what is meaningful and important.  Reflecting on what is most important to you, and acting accordingly, can reduce stress.
I Made my Own Stress Even Worse!  Many of us are tempted to cope with stress in ways which bring short term relief, but, in the long run, make things worse.  Examples of negative coping include excessive use of alcohol, overeating and eating many unhealthy foods, or problematic habits like smoking.  Our own coping styles may be causing our stress to become more severe in the long run. 
Seasonal Affective Disorder: According to the American Psychiatric Association, 10-20% of people in America feel more depressed with the onset of winter.  The symptoms for seasonal depression are exactly the same as those for major depression.  Once properly diagnosed, treatment for seasonal affective disorder usually includes psychotherapy, medications, and sometimes light therapy.
Dysfunctional Family: The fact that it is the holiday season does not mean that long established family dynamics will magically change.  If your family has a history of emotional dysfunction, such as excessive arguing, alcohol use, or displays of anger, it is unlikely that these patterns will change just because it is a special day.
How to Get the Most Out of a Difficult Time
Psychologists and other mental health professionals have found time and time again that active coping with depression, anxiety, or stress, is almost always better than feeling like there is nothing you can do.  While your holiday situation may not be ideal, here are some ideas to make the most out of a difficult time.
Take time for yourself — There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. People should remember that they’re only one person and can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing people can do. Go for a walk, hang out with a friend, watch a movie or take time out to listen to music or read a new book. Everyone needs time to recharge their batteries — by slowing down, people will actually have more energy to accomplish their goals.
Volunteer — Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter where families can volunteer together. Not only is giving back a great way to spend time with loved ones during the holidays, but helping others has been shown to reduce stress and improve overall mood.
Have realistic expectations — No holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin the holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If the children’s wish lists are outside the budget, talk to them about the family's finances this year and remind them that the holidays aren't about expensive gifts.
Remember what's important — The barrage of holiday advertising can make people forget what the holiday season is really about. When the holiday expense list is running longer than the monthly budget, scale back and be reminded that what makes a great celebration is loved ones, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations or gourmet food.
Seek support — Talk about the anxiety, stress or sadness with friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help people navigate their feelings and work toward a solution for the holiday blues. If the feelings persist, consider seeing a professional such as a psychologist. They are uniquely trained to understand the connection between the mind and body. They can offer strategies as to how goals can be adjusted so they are attainable as well as help people change unhealthy behaviors and address emotional issues.
For More Information
American Psychological Association Help Center:
Mayo Clinic Health Information: