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Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping

Trent Everett, Ph.D. :: Dec 20, 2011 ::

Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, First Noelís, Hanukah Dreidelís, White Christmas or Ö Iíll Have a  Blue Christmas Without You


Many of us look forward to the holidays and hope that there will be a time of happiness, friendliness, fellowship, love, and harmony. Yet often our anticipation and excitement turns into feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and/or family disharmony.

The stressfulness of holiday events may be a part of what happens in the holiday season, in terms of mood changes and anxiety. It may also be caused by overdrinking, overeating, overspending, over committing and fatigue. The demands of the season are many: shopping, cooking and travel, house guests, family reunions, parties, office parties and extra financial burden.

Given our country's economic woes, the holidays have the potential to create additional challenges this year. Few people seem to have extra resources to spend on gifts, parties and extravagances. Families are cutting back, employees are worrying about job security and seniors are concerned about their retirement. In an online poll conducted this summer on stress, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy.

ďIt is normal to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season. The pressure to have the perfect holiday can be extraordinary,Ē says Dr. Katherine Nordal, executive director for professional practice at APA. ďIt is important to put things in perspective and realize that the materialism of the holidays isnít the real spirit of the season. The holidays are about family and togetherness, not tinsel and presents.Ē

Stress from the ailing economy and the increasing costs of gas, housing and healthcare can leave you especially vulnerable to increased anxiety during the holidays.  Sometimes people who are not generally depressed actually struggle with holiday depression.

Symptoms can include headaches, insomnia, uneasiness, anxiety, sadness, intestinal problems, and unnecessary conflict with family and friends.

However, it is important to view the current economic situation as an opportunity to enhance your psychological well-being. Remember, there are conscious steps you can take to prevent holiday stress and ensure a worry-free season.  Here are some tools to get through the holiday season happily....as well as ways to prevent problems and misery for yourself and your loved ones:

Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression

When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

1. Acknowledge and embrace your emotions. The holidays can be particularly stressful if you have recently lost someone you love or have gone through a divorce, or if you are spending the holidays alone. Recognize that your feelings of sadness and loneliness are normal. Allow yourself to express your emotions openly. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings.  Donít force yourself to be happy just because itís a holiday.  Remember, the holidays do not automatically take away feelings of loneliness, sadness, frustration, anger, and fear.

2. Keep your expectations realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.  The main focus is to make happy memories, rather than continue traditions for traditionís sake.  The more relaxed an event, the more likely everyone will want to keep it up, making future holidays easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket wonít ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If your childrenís wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about the familyís finances this year and remind them that the holidays arenít about expensive gifts

Your family probably isnít like the Cleavers, and your holiday probably wonít end up like a TV special. In real life, problems happen. Maybe you overcooked the turkey. Maybe your sister couldnít make the drive up. Maybe you didnít get through all the things on your ďto doĒ list. Donít sweat the small stuff. The holidays are a time to celebrate and give thanks for everyone and everything that you have.

3. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

Be responsible for how you behave. You certainly have no control over how your relatives behave. The most important part of avoiding holiday stress with our families is for each of us to feel mastery over and satisfaction with, our own behaviors, attitudes & feelings. If you know in your head and your heart that you've acted like the best parent, child, brother, sister, friend that you know how to be, you can walk away from any difficulty feeling good about yourself.

Be careful about resentments related to holidays past. Declare an amnesty with whichever family member or friend you are feeling past resentments. It is not helpful to intimidate your relative or to tell each resentment on your list of grievances. Don't let your relative do that to you, either. 

4. Focus on any positive behavior you see in others and let them know you see it and appreciate it.  The holidays are a time of family togetherness Ė and all the family drama that goes with it. When family members cram together under one roof, it is not uncommon for tempers to flare. Keep the peace in your household by setting a good example and always being on the look out for what people are doing successfully. And if that doesnít work, walk away or find some other alternative to avoid getting caught up in someone's situation. 

5. Have an attitude of gratitude. Misery and gratitude cannot occupy the same space in our psychological house, and we have the power to choose between these emotional states.

6. Plan a budget and stick to it. Between gifts, travel, food and entertainment, itís easy to overspend during the holidays if you arenít careful. It takes about four months for the average credit-card user to pay off holiday-related bills.  Before you go gift and food shopping, figure out how much money you can afford to spend on a holiday. Then stick to your budget and donít spend a penny more. The barrage of holiday advertising can make you forget what the holiday season is really about. When your holiday expense list is running longer than your budget, scale back.  Remind yourself that family time together makes a celebration great, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations or gourmet food.

Try these and other alternatives. Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.  For gift-giving, it may be helpful to decide how much money you can spend on each person, then put that amount of cash directly into an envelope with the personís name on it. When the envelope is empty, your shopping ends. No exceptions.

7. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That'll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.

Focus on one thing at a time. Instead of trying to do everything at once, separate your tasks and tackle them one at a time. That way, you will be less likely to get sidetracked or have your mind wander. It also helps to have a list of all of your tasks so you can mark off each one as you complete it. Plus, youíll feel a greater sense of accomplishment when you can see all the things you have finished.

Decide upon your priorities and stick to them. Organize your time. Be reasonable with your schedule. Do not overbook yourself into a state of exhaustion--this makes people cranky, irritable, and depressed.

8. Simplify. If you feel pulled in too many directions during the holiday season (places to go and people to see), cut back on all of your outings. For example, trying to juggle too many activities: office holiday parties, church events, Christmas caroling, tree-lighting ceremonies, pictures with Santa Claus, the Nutcracker ballet. Let each member of your family pick one or two activities that mean the most to them and save everything else for next year.

9. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Donít let anyone pressure or guilt you into taking on more than you can handle. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. Simply decline, nicely but firmly, for activities and engagements that you donít have the time or energy to undertake. If you canít say no (for example, to your boss), cut something else out of your schedule, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time to make sure that you donít become overbooked.

10. Stay healthy and don't abandon healthy habits or let the holidays become a reason for over-indulging.  Unnecessary weight gain and hangovers only adds to the strain and guilt and exacerbates depression and anxiety. Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is a depressant. 

Watch what you eat. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Youíll be less tempted to overeat on a full stomach. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity. We all have a tendency to overindulge during the holidays with sweets, fats, carbohydrates and alcohol.

Unfortunately, the more fats and sugar you eat, the less energy you have, and you end up feeling even more stressed and run-down. To keep your energy up during the hustle and bustle of holiday preparation, try eating mini-meals throughout the day.

Exercise is one of the best ways to help your body beat stress. But when youíre running around with a ďto doĒ list as long as Santaís, hitting the gym is usually the last thing on your mind. Just as it is important to maintain your normal diet during the holidays, it is essential to keep up with your normal exercise routine.

If you canít squeeze in that hour-long cardio class, take the dog on a quick jog around the block or throw the football around in the backyard with your nieces and nephews. Yoga is a great exercise for holiday stress relief: You can stretch your muscles and relax your mind at the same time.

11. Make time to take care of yourself.  Making some time for yourself may sound counter productive but spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. All of us need some time to recharge our batteriesóby slowing down you may actually have more energy to accomplish your goals while making you more fun to be around. Remember that youíre only one person and can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do.

Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm. Take a walk at night and stargaze, get a massage or take time out to listen to your favorite music or sip a cup of hot tea and/or read a book. A little alone time will help you recharge those batteries and help put the rest of your holiday stressors in perspective.

12. Reach out. If you feel lonely, depressed, or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Traditionally, many holidays are about giving. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter where you and/or your family can volunteer. Also, participating in a giving tree or adopt-a-family program, helping those who are underprivileged, volunteering to help with hospitalized children, the homeless, or the aged and disabled at the holidays can fill you with a sense of joy like nothing else, especially if you canít be with your own family during the holidays. There are many, many opportunities for doing community service and this can be a powerful tool for beating back those holiday blues.

Talk about stress related to the holidays with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution.

Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, you might be suffering from depression.  Talk to your doctor or consider talking with a professional such as a psychologist to help you develop coping strategies and better manage your stress. A psychologist has the skills and professional training to help people learn to manage stress and cope more effectively with life problems, using techniques based on best available research and their clinical skills and experience.

Take control of the holidays

To sum it up, the holidays are upon us with last minute stress.  But don't let this special time of year become something you dread. Make an early New Yearís resolution to simplify your life.  Remember the holidays are about family, friends and togetherness.  Remember not to expect your visions of dancing sugarplums, family and friends to be perfect.

Instead, take these recommended steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you can find peace and joy during the holidays.

If nothing else, please remember that, to a great degree, we have a lot of choices about our perceptions and the meanings we attach to what ever is going on around us.  You can only control what you think and what you do.  Focus your energy there. The choice is always yours. 

If your mood gets more negative than ďthe bluesĒ and lasts for several days or weeks, seek professional help.