Managing stress during the holidays: Psychologist, heal thyself

Managing holiday stress more effectively

Posted Nov 25, 2009

The weight of it all came crashing down upon me as November wore on. Work was becoming unbearable. The holidays added new challenges and demands on my time. I was stressed, increasingly irritable, and becoming more and more unhappy as my life felt like a rickety wagon being held together by duct tape stretched to the breaking point. How did things get so crazy? What could I do?

Suddenly, the psychologist in me woke up and quickly produced the prescription -- I was lacking in perceptions of control in the face of stress, adrift far from a sea of tranquility, and in need of regaining the upper hand. How ironic that a psychologist whose research focuses on the self and how it serves to buffer one against the stresses of everyday life could feel himself at a near breaking point. When sitting down to write this blog on a cross-country flight, I began to rediscover that the solutions to dealing with my stress lay around me in the psychological literature on the self.

The fundamental need for personal control: Why stress can feel so weighty

We often assume that positivity needs such as wanting high self-esteem or a sense of connection to others are the most fundamental needs. And certainly, these are terribly important. Yet, I'd argue that perceptions of understanding and control, at a basic level, often trump them.

Over the past couple of months, I felt out of control. My world became a ball of stress, fueled by teaching time-demanding classes, overseeing several new lines of research in the lab with mostly newbie graduate and undergraduate students as researchers, writing numerous time-consuming letters of recommendation for students and colleagues alike, finding no time available to workout and stay active, and even feeling like there is no time to cook a decent meal at home. Every day, the ratchets of stress were tightening by one more click with each sunrise, and my mood and efficacy was strained. But on a flight to the West Coast to visit friends for the Thanksgiving Holiday, I accepted the call of "psychologist, heal thyself."

The research literature is replete with numerous demonstrations of how control is central to survival, and that people will seek control even at the cost of one's self-esteem. For example, studies show that rape victims will sometimes blame themselves (e.g., "Why didn't I leave work a few minutes earlier before it got so dark?") for being sexually assaulted to perceive that the world is controllable and predictable. And similarly, parents will often blame themselves (e.g., "Why did I let my daughter borrow the car... I should have realized there could be drunk drivers out on the road?") following the death of their own children to uncontrollable events. Such episodes underscore that, at times, having a sense of control is far more important than having a sense of self-worth.

In the face of stress, perceptions of control are essential to succeed. Classic research on learned helplessness shows how dogs will eventually not attempt to avoid shocks in their cages if they sense there is no way to escape them. In humans, seeing control in one's experiences is necessary to adopt a more efficacious and hardy response to life's bumps. In fact, work on hardiness coping styles show that people who perceive control, have commitment to their goals, and can reinterpret setbacks as challenges fare the best in the face of stress. Although reinterpreting one's obstacles can be quite useful, there are additional implements in the stress-reduction toolkit as well.

Combating everyday stress more effectively

Friends and family. There is considerable evidence that social support can help people deal effectively with stress. For example, research shows that students facing the stress of taking medical school entrance exams fared better and experienced less anxiety when they had greater social support. Interestingly, the holidays provide both challenges and opportunities on this front. That is, juggling family demands and expectations during the holidays can add greatly to one's level of stress. Yet, these people can also provide considerable social support. So, to the extent that one can focus on reconnecting and empathizing with family and friends rather than focusing on lofty expectations and the production value of get-togethers, one can transform a potential stressor into a considerable asset of stress relief.

Spend some time with Fido. In addition to seeking support from people, sometimes our furry friends can play an important role as well. There is good support in the literature that pets can help people deal with stress. In one study examining over 900 Medicare recipients, pet owners facing negative life events required fewer trips to doctors than did those without pets. Similarly, HIV-positive men with pets reported less depression than HIV-positive men without pets. Perhaps even more striking, another study showed that within one-year of a heart attack, pet owners were less likely to die if they had a pet (1%) than if they did not (7%).

Get some exercise. Engaging in exercise changes one's physiological functioning, helping one deal with stress more effectively. In addition, getting into shape increases one's sense of mastery, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, improving one's ability to cope with stress. And further, to the extent that the inside world is fueling your stress (e.g., family, work, e-mail), getting outside can get you away from the sources of your discontent.

In conclusion

Certainly, one cannot completely evaporate all of the stressors in one's life by taking the dog for a walk around the block joined by family and friends. However, adopting incremental changes to one's life (e.g., exercising daily) and sticking with them over the long haul can result in consequential improvement. If a psychologist can feel stymied by stress, then certainly anyone can suffer its effects. However, psychology can also provide solutions for dealing with stress, especially during the holidays when ideally we should find ourselves surrounded by the support, empathy, and love of those closest to us.

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