A Strategy For Holiday Stress
Friday - December 15, 2010
Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!
For many, Christmas is a wonderful time of year spent with family and friends, and, of course, all those presents under the tree!
But it’s not always so jolly for some, especially those who may experience added stress from the extra costs and “oh, so many things to do” - shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, cooking, trips to the post office, etc.
According to Jeremy Roberts, UCERA psychiatrist at The Queen’s Medical Center, though there is not technically a DSM4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual fourth edition, a book of consensus in psychology/psychiatry about what constitutes illness) diagnosis for holiday stress, it is a culturally understood, and a very real phenomenon of increased anxiety or low mood that can occur during the holiday season.
“There are a large number of changes and expectations that someone has to adapt to during this time, and that’s where the “stress” develops from. Though clearly, for some, this isn’t a prominent issue, others handle it far less easily and a sense of unease during the season is surprisingly common,” explains Roberts.
“In order to understand why stress increases during the holiday seasons, we have to remember that we are creatures of habit - and that our habits are formed by finding ways to adapt to everyday stresses. If you are in constant conflict with your sibling, for example, you may resort to avoiding that sibling to escape this conflict. Suddenly, during the Christmas season, however, your mechanism for dealing with this uncomfortable situation is unavailable because of the expectation to visit with your family during the holidays, hence you are left exposed to something you have otherwise been able to avoid.
“At the same time, we impose on ourselves the expectations of a ‘perfect holiday,’ coupled with the fear of other’s opinions of us if we fail to make this happen. And of course, we should be happy during this period because everyone else appears to be. Thus any family discord, financial troubles, grief after a loss of a loved one, or guilt about being unable to achieve perfection is further exacerbated by the sharp contrast between our perception of our own failings and the happy, easy contentment of others over the holidays.”
Stress is not good for so many reasons. It can decrease productivity, further strain relations with others, lead to poor financial decisions and generally create a miserable holiday that will be perpetuated in future seasons. There are also many medical conditions that are thought to be linked with stress, particularly heart disease and obesity. Most of these are linked to chronic stresses, not the acute, relatively short stresses of a holiday, but, it can exacerbate already existing mental health conditions. And, of course, should someone have more severe symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts, they should seek medical assistance immediately.
That’s why it’s important to recognize signs of holiday stress, which are very similar to signs of any type of stress, including irritability, sleep disturbances, concentration difficulties, a feeling of anxiety or tension, and low energy. In more severe cases, there may be a dramatic worsening of mood, worsening of any type of substance abuse like alcoholism, helplessness - even suicidal thoughts and actions.
“Treatment of anxiety and depression are complex topics within themselves, but there are several ways to address anxiety in many forms, from exercise, meditation and breathing exercises to cognitive, rational addressing of the underlying stressful circumstances,” says Roberts. “Letting ourselves understand that we don’t need the season to be perfect, that we don’t have to put our finances into meltdown mode to buy the perfect gift for our child (there’s a pretty good chance she will still love us even if she does-n’t get a real pony), that we don’t have to have Christmas lights with the brightness of a small super-nova, that our friendships are not contingent on hosting a 20-course business party that will require a professional planner, will help us put our lives in perspective and let us simply enjoy the season.
“A particularly useful technique I have used with my patients is physically writing a list of the things that are bothersome to us - to make it readily identifiable and concrete, to give it a face. We have many thoughts that ricochet in the back of our mind that are often completely illogical, but nonetheless create discord until they are identified and refuted. Look at the list and evaluate each one, determining how real the concern is (for example: will the neighbors really consider hiring a hitman because I ‘only’ brought them cookies this year), and prioritize the largest, most valid concerns, allowing yourself to let go of the other ones that are more of a cognitive distortion than a reality.”
In these last two weeks before Christmas, try to minimize stress by recognizing your limitations, and setting your expectations to a realistic level.
“If something needs to be done, share the burden with others by giving specific instructions,” suggests Roberts. “Also, make a list of absolute needs, moderate needs and minimal needs, then address them in an organized fashion. And of course, remember the purpose of the season (contrary to some retailers, unbridled consumerism is not the goal).
“Holiday stress doesn’t have to exist. Though change happens, we can adapt with grace. Furthermore, the sense of increased expectations are often self imposed. Hence, we have the power to remove them or route our energies to more productive, useful ends.”
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