The Holiday Season is upon us! For many, this conjures up visions of friends, family, food, celebration and joy. However, we all know that is only half of the story. For so many of us, the holidays also mean stress – and the accompanying depression, anxiety, and angst, not to mention the financial challenges of over-spending and the health challenges of overindulging.
Winter holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, enjoyable times off of work they are, also disrupt our normal daily cycle. This alone may increase anxiety and depression in vulnerable individuals for whom a steady, predictable daily routine is the foundation of their lives.
The financial demands of the Holiday season can also be significantly stressful for others. The massive increase in spending on presents, travel, food and the like can place a serious burden on those living paychecks to paycheck. Many max out their credit during this time only to have to pay for it over the balance of the year.
Add to this the excessive eating, drinking and sleep deprivation ubiquitous during the Holiday season, it is easy to see how this time is one of great stress for so many.
One would be well advised to pay attention to one’s feelings and reactions to this holiday stress. Quite simply, be aware of what stresses you and, most importantly, how you respond.
For some it may come in the form of sadness, the desire to withdraw an avoid the festivities and people. For others it may come out as irritability, excessive anxiety, or even anger. Though social convention dictates that we interact with others, many have difficulty relating to others and even ourselves during this time. The range of emotional responses run that gamut.
Often, this stress will lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as the excessive use of alcohol or drugs, social isolation, worsening domestic violence and child abuse. The often-unrealistic expectations associated with the season, disappointing interactions with family, or our inability to be with those we love, may lead to worsening depression and anxiety.
Sadly, those we love the most, many times bear the brunt of our unhealthy coping. We tend to be more abusive with those who are the closest to us and lash out, sometimes violently.
Those who suffer from pre-existing mental health issues such as depression may be even more susceptible to their illnesses during this time. The simple decrease of sunlight as winter approaches can make them more vulnerable to seasonal mood changes (Seasonal Affective Disorder) than the average person.
Holiday stress may lead to serious psychological, cognitive and physical consequences, in vulnerable populations such as those suffering from mental Illness. If you have family members with mental health challenges, allow them to determine their level of interaction during this time. Be there for them, but try no to pressure them into situations that may be overly challenging.
For those individuals who grew up in dysfunctional environments where they sustained abuse, experienced neglect, family alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence, the Holliday season may bring back painful memories that may lead to dysfunctional coping, including social isolation and increased sadness/irritability. It is important to be ware of these potential triggers.
The most common consequences of additional stress include metabolic changes such as elevated blood sugar, increase deposits of fat (excessive weight gain), worsening insulin resistance, and chronic fatigue. These issues may last much longer than the holidays themselves and thus extend the stress over a large portion of the year.
If you find yourself suffering from symptoms such as increased trouble sleeping, heart palpitations, irritability, rapid breathing, fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, nausea, diarrhea or abdominal pain. Consider the possibility that this may be a reaction to increased stress brought on by the holidays.
To help manage these issues, do your best to avoid overextending yourself personally, socially and financially. Focus on taking care of your health by sleeping well and by limiting the holiday food and drink to the holiday itself and not throughout the entire season.
If you suffer from depression and anxiety, make an appointment with your therapist or psychiatrist, attend support groups, make sure that you have your prescriptions filled, and do you best to celebrate the holidays on your terms and do not give into unnecessary social or familial pressures.
Spend time with those you choose to be with and not with whom social convention dictates. If you suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction, contact your sponsor and increase the number of groups you attend. Find an alcohol or drug free environment in which to celebrate.
For those of us with perfectionistic tendencies, a “Perfect Holiday” is a source of stress, and we must learn to decrease our expectations to a more realistic level. There is no such thing as a “perfect” present, meal or gathering. Allow the holiday just “to be” with less control exerted by you over them. Do your best to embrace the imperfection of the time, for those tend to end up being the best stories anyway.
In order to experience the holidays in a healthier way, we need to change our perspective. The Holidays should not be a challenge, a competition or a forced gathering of people we do not enjoy being around. They are an opportunity to re-assess our hopes, aspirations and priorities. To understand the meaning of being “valuable” to ourselves and others. A time to make peace with ourselves and sublimate all of which we have no control over. A time, just to be and give thanks for the blessings we have.
The Holidays have a different meaning to each and every one of us, but we all experience them together. It is in that togetherness that we have an opportunity to express and deliver our most important values like caring, love, kindness, compassion, giving, understanding, empathy, sympathy, thankfulness and future goals and aspirations.
These cherished values are what makes each of us a “Valuable Human Being” in this world. Allow yourself to celebrate this fact during this time.