Holiday Stress

How to cope and when to seek help

Posted Dec 02, 2014

For many people, the holidays call to mind warm memories of fireside time with family, delicious meals, and stellar conversation. Not everyone looks forward to the holidays. From conflict with family to endless pressure to conform to a mythical “ideal” approach to the holidays, many people find themselves overwhelmed at the holidays. If you're among their number, you're not alone. Changing the way you approach this stressful season can help you move past the chaos and pressure. But if a few tweaks don't leave you feeling better, therapy can make a big difference.

Why the holidays can be so difficult

The holidays bring together a host of common stressors – family, financial obligations, and time limitations. For most people, it's not one single stressor that makes the holidays challenging, but a host of difficulties. Some common reasons for holiday-related stress include:

• The challenge of sticking to a healthy diet or weight-loss plan when holiday snacks are readily available

• The difficulty of interacting with a dysfunctional family

• Pressure to spend time with multiple families or family members. Many people find that their in-laws and parents perpetually fight over which family gets to host.

• Pressure to create a “perfect” or “magical” holiday season with endless holiday-related activities

• The time constraints of getting everything – holiday cards, decorations, gift shopping – done in time

• The financial limitations of present shopping

• Memories of holidays past that did not go well

• Longing for family members who have moved away or died

• Idealization of a mythical past when the holidays were “perfect”

• Fears about growing old; for some people, the holidays are little more than a reminder of the youth they've lost.

Finding ways to cope

If you want to make it through the holiday season in one piece, now is the time to begin planning your strategy. Enlist the help of your partner, children, and other close loved ones to present a united front to anyone who pressures you to do something you don't want to do. Then try the following tips.

Set clear boundaries.

You don't have to spend the holidays the way someone else wants you to. For example, you might decree that you will not be traveling to multiple houses or that you will not give into guilt trips to stay “just another hour.” Make sure your partner is on board and supports your boundaries, then stick to them. Trying to live up to someone else's expectations is a major cause of holiday-related stress.

Establish reasonable expectations.

You cannot make your holiday season look like a painting or a Pinterest board. You have a life outside of the holidays, and your holidays don't have to be perfect. No one's holidays are perfect. Rather than trying to do everything, think about what actually matters to you, then prioritize that. Hate Christmas cards? You don't have to send them. Sick of frying latkes? Forget about it this year.

Don't over-spend.

Study after study has shown that people are more likely to suffer holiday-related depression when they over-spend. Gift-giving can be very exciting, but starting off the new year drowning in bills is never fun. Make a realistic budget, then stick to it. If you can't get everything you want, find other ways to show your love. Rather than buying your niece a new phone, plan a fun day out together instead. 

Forgive yourself.

Before you can be happy at any time of the year, you need to be able to accept yourself. Don't force yourself to live up to unreasonable expectations or cling to goals of perfection. Instead, allow yourself a little room to deviate from your own ideals. If you gain five pounds, don't send the holiday cards out in time, or lose your temper once or twice, the world will not end.

Honor your own traditions.

One of the best ways to end holiday-related sadness is to create your own traditions, rather than trying to conform to something someone else wants to do. Consider doing the following:

• Find ways to honor people you love who aren't with you this season, such as a family dinner in their honor.

• Stay in touch with loved ones, even if you don't send cards or see them over the holidays.

• Try asking your kids to help you create a family holiday tradition that you can follow every year.

• Ask you kids or spouse if there are any traditions they could do without; then ditch these extra sources of work.

• Don't follow holiday traditions you don't like.

When to seek help

Therapy can always offer help dealing with stress and depression, even if you don't technically meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your doctor or seek therapy from a qualified mental health counselor. If you experience the following conditions, seek help right away:

• Sadness or anxiety that doesn't let up even when something good happens

• Unpleasant emotions that interfere with your ability to function, such as when you wake up and immediately start crying or can't get your work done because you are too anxious

• Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

• Symptoms of disordered eating such as skipping meals, excessive exercise, or binging and purging

• Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

• Experiencing a traumatic event, such as a rape, assault, or burglary

• Thoughts of harming loved ones

• Uncontrolled anger

• You get depressed every winter; this could suggest seasonal affective disorder.

Often, just a few sessions of therapy can make a difference. In some situatinos, medication can also prove valuable. The key is to be honest with yourself about your feelings; if your emotions seem out of control or you feel like you can't cope, you need and deserve help.

References:

Beat the holiday blues -- and know when they're something major. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/20081217_holiday_blues/