Holiday Stress and Your Mental Health

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Well, according to Bing Crosby. But while many people love the festivities of the winter holidays, this time of year can evoke melancholy or stress for others. The nights are longer; many of us are desperately trying to close out end of year projects while delivering a perfect Christmas for our families. Some of us don’t celebrate the same holidays as others, or celebrate at all. A National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) survey found that 64 percent of people living with a mental illness reported that their conditions worsened over the holiday season.

There are lots of possible reasons for this. December can bring up regrets over the past year or reflection over goals that were never attained, mistakes that were made. Economic struggles can make it hard to provide Christmas gifts; family members may dread get-togethers with argumentative relatives. And let’s face it, this month can be so insanely busy that even the biggest holiday lovers can get stressed out in December!

Holiday stress can impact healthcare workers too. While most of us can enjoy some time at home with our families, physicians and nurses are keeping the emergency room lights burning. In addition to the usual injuries and medical events, the holidays can bring their own wave of ED visits.  In 2012 alone, there were 15,000 accidents related to holiday decorating – and in 2021, US hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 206,400 toy-related injuries!

8 Cures for Holiday Stress

If you’re looking to reclaim some holiday spirit – or just a few moments of tranquility – here are some practices that can help.

  1. Remember you’re not alone. It’s common to get stressed right now, so don’t blame yourself for feeling more frustration than holiday cheer.
  2. Create a plan. If you think December demands might exacerbate your depression or anxiety, set up a support system in advance. Plan strategies like calling your best friend, taking a walk to get away from relatives, or hiring temporary help with your workload before you get overwhelmed.
  3. Take care of yourself. You might be taking care of everyone else right now, wrapping gifts, hosting relatives, assisting with school Christmas concerts, or preparing a big family holiday dinner while trying to hit end of year targets at work. Remember to nourish yourself throughout the season so your energies don’t get depleted, such as setting aside a “lazy day” to watch your favorite movie. And on that note…
  4. Say no. You can only take on so many extra projects, participate in so many Secret Santa/White Elephant events, or attend so many parties. Set priorities and focus your energies on the people who matter most to you.  
  5. Learn stress management skills. Breathwork, guided meditation, and mindfulness are all good ways to relax. And so is this: exercise. If you live in a cold climate, it can be easy to drift away from evening walks and outdoor sports. Try to create a wintertime fitness routine – you might even consider joining a gym now before the New Year’s rush.
  6. Recognize “SAD.” Do you typically experience symptoms of depression during the darkest days of the calendar year? If you’re affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), your emotions might be triggered by seasonal changes. Ask your healthcare provider about screening and treatment. Another option is behavioral care telemedicine, which can connect you to discreet and empathetic support right from your living room.
  7. Build connections. Maybe you don’t have family or friends around you this holiday season – which you’re reminded of when you see all those happy group photos in your social media feed. The good news here is that many community centers, meetup groups, faith-based organizations and philanthropic foundations offer ways to come together, help those in need, and make new friends. Start with an organization like Big Sunday and find out where and how to connect.
  8. Extend a helping hand. Check in with neighbors, coworkers, or friends who might be struggling this season with holiday stress. Sharing resources at your workplace or school like 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or the Veterans Crisis Line or your Employee Assistance Program can make it easier for people to seek help.

Looking Back and Focusing Forward

Amidst the frantic holiday bustle, try to set aside quiet time for reflection. A new year is right around the corner. Reflection can enhance your clarity in looking back at 2023 and help you chart the course for a successful 2024. As novelist George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Here’s to a happy and peaceful holiday season.

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