The holiday season: a season of joy and celebration, of gifts and togetherness. Of office parties and family dinners, of eggnog and fruitcake. It’s also a season of stress, and part of the stress of the holidays is the fact that it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of year (no pressure there, right??). In fact, many of the facets of the holidays that can bring joy and delight also can contribute to our stress levels. This month, let’s take a look at the different aspects at the holiday season that cause stress, and then identify ways to reduce stress and increase self-care.
The holiday season can provoke many different types of stress. Spending time with family can be a wonderful part of the holidays, but it also can be extremely challenging. Siblings bicker, babies cry during church, certain relatives don’t get along. Families also change over time, making it very difficult to honor the traditions that holidays are notorious for – as Kate and William are discovering. As new families are created through marriage, stress can arise as to how to honor the traditions of both families of origin. Additionally, as families change through divorce, loss, or remarriage, stress rears it head through questions as to how to balance separate families, incorporate new families, or remember those who are gone.
While the presence of family can lead to stress during the holiday season, it is equally important to consider those who do not have family during this time of year. As we are inundated with advertisements showing people shopping for presents for their loved ones, sharing meals with others, or celebrating with extended family, it’s a constantly painful message that there is something wrong with those who do not have family with whom to share the holidays. These messages can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness, making it harder for those in need to reach out for help and support. There is nothing wrong with not having family during the holidays, and is certainly not something to for which to be ashamed and marginalized.
Another aspect of the holiday season that is a mixed blessing is that of gifts. There can be great joy in searching for and purchasing the perfect gift for someone. However, the downside to the focus on gifts during the holiday season is the incredible financial burden that is placed on so many at this time. Holiday shopping can come at significant financial strain and substantial credit card debt. There is also financial pressure for festive clothing, food, and other assorted costs. In short, this can be a very expensive time of year, and with that comes increased stress and worry.
Another major area of stress during the holiday season is simply the fact that mental health issues that are concerns during the rest of the year don’t magically vanish during the month of December. Similar to the idea that the advertisements that show all those loving families having wonderful times together can increase feelings of isolation and loneliness in people who don’t have families with whom to spend the holidays, those same ads showing everyone full of good cheer can lead to painful feelings in those who struggle with negative emotions during this time of year. This might be the season of comfort and joy, but sadly depression, grief, and loss don’t go on vacation just because of the date on the calendar. In fact, the opposite is true. Episodes of depression, feelings of grief, loneliness, and all those other negative emotions can all increase at this time of year.
For those who have lost someone close to them, the holidays are an especially difficult time. Whether the loss is recent or not, the loss of the person is keenly felt, particularly in situations in which family is gathered and a family member who would normally be there is notably absent. Grief can also be more sharply felt in relation to the happiness of others, and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. It is truly challenging to hold both emotions of grief and the enjoyment of the holidays at the same time, and sometimes one emotion is felt more strongly than the other.
In a similar vein to feelings of stress and grief, feelings of depression can increase during the holiday season as well. Remember that mental health struggles are really not talked about during the holiday season and that it’s the season of love, joy, and happiness. It’s challenging to have feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when you are surrounded by songs urging you to be “merry” and “bright” and to “rock around the Christmas tree.” The pressure to conform to societal emotional norms during the holiday season is extremely intense. In fact, I would argue that the message is that “if you are not happy during this time of year, there is something very wrong with you (or you’re just not trying hard enough).” This is very poisonous message for those struggling with mental health issues, as the resolution of stress, grief, and depression takes far more than merely trying hard.
During this holiday season, let’s try to embrace both the joy and the stress that is involved and remember that BOTH are a part of this time of year. If the “spirit of the season” is that of love and care, then let’s remember that you deserve some of that love and care yourself. Accepting that stress, grief, and/or depression may be experienced during this time and that it is okay to experience these emotions can reduce some of the shame and guilt surrounding these feelings.
If you do feel down, there are some steps that you can take to help yourself get through this time. First, try to make sure that you are taking care of your physical health by getting a good amount of sleep, keeping up with your regular exercise, and making smart food selections. It might be the season of endless holiday parties, never-ending eggnog, and late night chats with your cousins, but your body (and mind) might need a break from your holiday social life.
Next, look to practicing healthy emotional self-care. Don’t run yourself ragged or overtax yourself, and instead take breaks or timeouts when you need it. Small moments of meditation or personal time can be really helpful to refocus yourself when you find that you’re going a bit crazy. Find your stress relief – in exercise, reading, or watching a favorite TV show – and do it, without guilt! For those dealing with grief, find times and ways to remember your loved one(s) that are personal and meaningful to you. You don’t have to stifle your sadness, but can find ways to honor and include your loss during the holidays.
The holiday season is a time of joy and good will. It can also be a time of stress and sadness, but most importantly, it is a season of love and care for others and ourselves. By accepting and honoring how you feel, you can decrease your stress and increase your joy. Best wishes for the holidays and for 2016!