The holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving into January is, in many ways, a cheerful time, one of togetherness, connection, and giving. But, in truth, many people dread the season for the stresses it brings — to finances, relationships, workload, you name it. While those stresses can’t be eliminated, they can often be managed through a combination of mindfulness, realistic expectations, and simply seeking help.
The holiday season is usually a magical time for kids — a month of anticipation, togetherness, and warm feelings they’ll remember forever.
The problem is, years later, those memories often collide with adult realities like balancing work and home responsibilities, strained finances, and relationship conflicts. In short, it’s not always the most wonderful time of the year. Rather, the holidays can rank among the most difficult.
“There’s a lot of demand that comes from expectations — from our families, or what happened last year, or what we see on TV — or simply what we want to happen. There are a lot of expectations, but the best thing is to remain mindful of the reality of family, finances, and other situations that change from year to year,” said Dr. Edna Rodriguez, a clinical psychologist with Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.
Especially challenging are the expectations people feel from the outside — whether it’s to maintain a perfect home, make appearances at gatherings when they’d rather stay home, or further tax finances already stressed by family gift purchases.
“It’s important to learn to say ‘no’ to that extra party or secret Santa or Yankee swap, which can put your budget on edge and make you feel stressed out when resources are limited,” Rodriguez noted.
Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of Adult Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center, agreed.
“As fun as the holiday season can be, it can also be stressful,” he said. “Lots of drinking and eating, lots of entertaining, lots of spending — it’s important to do these things in moderation. If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”
Anfang noted that increased family contact may also be stressful.
“Sometimes bringing together family members can lead to too much togetherness — fighting at the dinner table, re-opening old wounds, triggering buried conflicts,” he noted. “It can be helpful to give yourself a little space, try to de-escalate tense situations, and remember that this is supposed to be about fun and celebration.”
“If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping, all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”
Sometimes that means just stepping away for a few minutes, Rodriguez said.
“People have to spend time with family members — maybe family members you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. So if you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”
That ‘checking in’ applies to most stressful situations, she added, around the holidays or not.
“Research shows that, by doing that at least two minutes a day, you will have better stress management and remain more present in your day. With apps on smartphones, people can set up alarms to remind them to take a deep breath and focus on their breathing. In fact, it can be breathing or taking a walk or just taking a break from overwhelming situations.”
Business, Not Pleasure
Those holiday stresses, of course, often creep into the workplace, which has its own specific set of challenges to begin with. According to a study by Virgin Pulse, a leader in the field of employee well-being, 70% of employees are significantly more stressed during the holidays, and more than 10% said they’re between 60% and 100% more stressed.
“It’s no secret that, for many, life is getting more complex and stressful each and every year. It’s become increasingly vital that employers help their teams better manage their stress and priorities — especially during the holidays — for each person to be their best and brightest selves, at work and in life,” said Chris Boyce, CEO of Virgin Pulse. “This time of year, it’s important we help employees stay on top of their work priorities and holiday checklists. Supporting their health and happiness using tools, resources, and programs that drive all aspects of their well-being will help them better keep their stress and health under control.”
Katie Sandler, a wellness and professional coach, told Inc. magazine that it’s important to put aside time for oneself.
“Put aside 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to do something for yourself with intention,” she said, which may include taking a walk or listening to a favorite song or two. “No one ever took a few intentional minutes to de-stress and said, ‘dang, I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Rodriguez said parents often get overwhelmed spending time with family and keeping the mystery and magic of Christmas alive for their children. “Having another set of expectations at work increases stress and defeats the purpose.”
“If you have to remove yourself from the area, do it — maybe go to the bathroom, breathe, and come back. Checking in with yourself is the most important thing.”
Managers have their own set of challenges, she added. “When all your employees are getting time off and you need to handle the work, that’s when your wife, husband, or partner may be a little on edge, because you’re absent at times they wish you were present.”
That’s when drawing lines becomes important — or at least using technology and other means to get out of the office and connect with the people who matter most.
Avoiding a Blue Christmas
The American Psychological Assoc. offers the following tips to handle stress around the holidays.
• Take time for yourself. There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. You’re only one person who can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do, and others will benefit when you’re stress-free. Go for a long walk, get a massage, or take time out to listen to your favorite music or read a book. All of us need some time to recharge our batteries, and by slowing down, you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals.
• Volunteer. Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter, where you and your family can volunteer. Also, participating in a giving tree or an adopt-a-family program, and helping those who are living in true poverty, may help you put your own economic struggles in perspective.
• Have realistic expectations. No Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If your children’s wish list is outside your 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 you forget what the holiday season is really about. When your holiday expense list is running longer than your monthly budget, scale back and remind yourself that what makes a great celebration is loved ones, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations, or gourmet food.
• Seek support. Talk about your anxiety with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution for your stress. Don’t isolate.
Holidays are also a time when people put a lot of value on materialistic things,” she told BusinessWest, which can lead to anxiety. Doing random acts of kindness can be a way to counter that — whether it’s lending an ear to neighbor or co-worker going through difficulties or contributing to a local soup kitchen.
“That keeps us grounded and focused on the true meaning of the holidays; it keeps us connected with each other, being human and being together. That’s another way to manage stress,” Rodriguez noted.
It’s true, of course, that the urge to do good deeds can be another way to create stressful expectations, but acts of kindness don’t have to be time-consuming, she said; just looking for moments in the day to show kindness is often enough.
Feeling the Loss
For many individuals — both those estranged from their families or those who have suffered a loss — the holidays can be a particularly lonely and isolating time. While it may seem like everyone else is celebrating, they’re reminded more than usual of loved ones they miss.
There’s nothing wrong with such emotions, Rodriguez said, but she added that some may find it helpful to actually schedule some time daily — even five to 10 minutes — to give themselves over to grief and reflection and even a good cry, before tackling whatever else their day brings.
Many people get ‘blue’ at this time of year, and that can be normal, Anfang added.
“It is also harder for some people when the days get shorter and colder,” he noted. “We get concerned when symptoms start causing significant functional impairment, making it harder for you to function at work and at home. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite and weight, decreased motivation and energy, daily tearfulness, thoughts to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead — these are potential signs of clinical depression.
“If you see these symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, that’s the time to contact a primary-care provider or seek evaluation by a mental-health professional,” he went on. “Depression is very treatable, and no one should suffer in silence, especially at the holidays.”
That’s because the holidays, for many people, is a time to connect, Rodriguez said.
“It’s really about being with each other, being together. Whatever background you have, we’re all together for a reason.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]