By Kari Gulin, MSW, RSW
The holidays come with many reasons to be stressed out and anxious – the gifts you haven’t picked out, the endless amount of social invitations and the office parties. But for many of us, the biggest source of holiday stress is family – the family dinner, the obligations, and the pressure of family tradition. All of these Holiday stressors can impact how you react, along with making seemingly simple things more difficult but it is important to learn how to manage this time of year to lead a healthy and happy life.
“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free, that’s not always the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that’s doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely” (Griffin, 2008).
What Contributes to Holiday Stress?
It’s important to first understand what it is about the holiday season that gets you feeling stressed out. Once you can understand what it is specifically about going to your family events that gets to you, you can learn to manage it better. For many of us, holiday stress and anxiety is triggered by things such as:
Going home or visiting family over the holidays naturally makes people think back to their own childhood and history, but for you, the memories that are coming to mind may not be as heartwarming. “During the holidays, a lot of childhood memories come back…You may find yourself dwelling on what was inadequate about your childhood and what was missing” (Griffin, 2008). If you associate the holidays with an unhappy time in your life, then it makes sense that your brain will naturally link unhappy memories with the holidays. As the holidays draw closer you may see an increase in your stress and anxiety.
Holidays may mean that you end up in the same room with people you try to steer clear of the rest of the year. This can be particularly noticeable if you happen to be struggling with mental health concerns and then have to deal with any stigma that others have. “Some relatives don’t really believe you’re depressed…they think you’re just lazy, or that it’s all in your head. It can be really hurtful.” (Griffin, 2008)
What’s different or the same
The holidays can really highlight everything that’s changed in your life – a divorce, a death in the family, a child who’s making their first trip back home after starting college. Any of these can make us feel anxious and add holiday stress.
For others, it’s the repetitive acts of family holiday gatherings that contribute to having a lower mood- the same people, the same jokes, and the same food. Each December, on repeat.
Lack of routine
During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by obligations and errands. It’s cold and flu season and your immune system can become weakened. It’s getting dark earlier every day; you’re eating worse and sleeping less. By the time the family gathering rolls around, you’re exhausted, tense, and overwhelmed. Your limited free time to practice self-care is only contributing to how difficult it is to manage with your family.
What happens in our Bodies?
No matter what kind of worry you have, the physical response in your body is always the same, in that it increases your cortisol levels (Hofmann & DiBartolo, 2014). This can compromise your immune system along with making you more vulnerable to increased mental health concerns. For those of us that have preexisting mental health concerns, our symptoms will likely begin to increase.
Anxiety has started to kick in as our body begins to feel uncomfortable, hot and sweaty, heart racing and we are breathing heavier (Beidel,Turney & Morris, 1995) . Our bodies are clearly telling us we are not comfortable and our minds are doing the same, as we are thinking of any way we can get ourselves out of this situation: “Do I have to make this same dessert again, I wonder when I can leave, why did I think this would be fun, I knew I should have stayed home, etc…” Our fight or flight responses are trying to signal us away from the potential harm, which in this case, is the stress-inducing event.
It Starts with You
Research says that the holidays can make people feel off-balance. We feel as though we have to toss in the towel to our daily routine because of family traditions and obligations. What we sometimes forget, is that we have control over our time; the key is to acknowledge this and start saying no.
For example, you may find the family obligations of the holidays overwhelming. You have to make the special dessert for everyone, you have to go over to your uncle’s for dinner, you have to attend your work party… you don’t necessarily want to do any of these things; however, you feel like you have to.
It’s important to stop yourself and think about the reasons “why am I doing things that make me unhappy?’” (Griffin, 2008) Writing a pros and cons list of reasons why you attend the gatherings, along with reasons why you don’t want to go may be a good place to start. Sometimes just making a list and being able to physically see that one side might have more facts to support it than we thought (Henderson & Horowitz, 1998).
How to Better Manage
Once you’ve looked at what works and what doesn’t about the holidays- it’s time to start making some changes. This is something within your control, which includes making different plans and trying to manage your responses to situations.
Expect to feel some amount of anxiety: Which strategies have worked for you in the past? Do you count to 10 silently before responding to others, do you take deep breaths or go for a walk outside to keep you calm. Think of things you already do and plan to use them throughout the day to keep your anxiety more manageable.
Self-Monitoring: This helps turn worries into a constructive process which focuses on finding a solution and problem solving (Szabo & Lovibond). Begin by writing down your negative and worried thoughts as they come up. For example, “I don’t want to say something silly, I always have the worst time, there’s no point in going…etc.” Once you have the hang of this and have created a bit of a list, notice any patterns and recurring thoughts you may be having. This is an important step to take inventory of how many times you are setting yourself up to be anxious as you’re getting ready for a gathering.
Practice Mindfulness: Try to use some basic activities that will help keep you in the moment and clear-minded. Some examples are: deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery.
Gratitude: A shift in your perspective will help keep you focused on the positives in your life. Try to appreciate as many things as you can from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. For example, being thankful for your health, being grateful to your parents for telling you they care about you…etc.
Pace yourself: This strategy is about planning your days and ensuring that you stick to your schedule. It is important to also plan your indulging as this can contribute to anxiety and stress. Alcohol and excessive eating can directly impact your mood and energy levels; that is not to say you can’t have a little extra. It’s important to plan to not have repeated meals/events where you continuously overindulge. Moderation is key.
Self-Care: “There’s a lot of cultural pressure during the holidays,” (Duckworth). “We tend to compare ourselves with the idea of a perfect family or a perfect holiday, but in fact, most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings”. It is completely normal to have family tension and dry turkey! There is nothing wrong with having mixed feelings over the holidays.
Learn more about Kari and how she can help you put a plan into place in a way that is unique to your needs and life. Contact us today if you’re ready to experience an improvement in your mental health.
- Beidel, D. C., Turner, S. M., & Morris, T. L. (1995). A new inventory to assess childhood social anxiety and phobia: The Social Phobia and Anxiety Inventory for Children. Psychological Assessment, 7(1), 73-79
- Griffin, R. M. (2008, October 01). Home for the Holidays. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com
- Henderson, L., & Zimbardo, P. (2010). Shyness, Social Anxiety, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Social Anxiety, 65-92. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-375096-9.00003-1
- Hofmann, S. G., & DiBartolo, P. M. (2014). Social anxiety clinical, developmental, and social perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier/AP.
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