The Hub Behavioral Health

’Tis the season for stress. Here’s how to fight it

If the mere thought of another holiday season makes it hard to catch your breath, you can be sure of one thing: You’re not the only one. We’re here to help you learn more about holiday stress—what causes it, how it affects us, and how to fight it—so you can ring in the New Year feeling happier, healthier, and a lot less exhausted.

Why the holidays are stressing you out

Holiday stress is real! More than 60 percent of people feel some stress during the holidays, according to a Healthline survey.

If you deal with mental health issues, you might notice that the holidays don’t help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64 percent of people with mental illness feel like holidays make their conditions worse. That’s significant when you consider how many people deal with mental illness, particularly anxiety or depression:

  • 31.1 percent of U.S. adults have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
  • 17.3 million U.S. adults have had at least one major depressive episode, according to the NIMH.
  • An estimated 6 million depressed people are over 65, according to the American Medical Resource Institute. For seniors who have lost spouses or other companions—and especially for those who are feeling depressed—holiday parties and family gatherings can remind you of your loss and make you feel lonelier.

One all-ages stressor? Holiday spending. In the Healthline survey, nearly half of respondents cited finances as the greatest cause of stress during the holidays. Other areas of concern included healthy eating and/or exercise, picking the “right” gift, and scheduling.

How holiday stress affects us

One myth about stress is that because it’s so common, it can’t be that bad. The truth is that stress affects your mind and body in very big ways. That’s true for either type of stress identified by the American Psychological Association (APA): acute stress or chronic stress.

Acute stress is the sudden emotional stress triggered by everyday events, from preparing a big meal to arguing at the dinner table. It can give you anything from stomach-aches to arrhythmias, and can even lead to more serious health issues such as heart attacks.

When you experience acute stress for long enough—for example, multiple times per day over the holiday season of two to three months—it can turn into chronic stress, which has a lasting impact on your mind and body. Chronic stress can take over your day-to-day life, making you feel tired, distracted, or irritable well past New Year’s Day.

Tips from the team to beat holiday stress

So how should you cope—and how shouldn’t you? During the holidays, we’re offered so many tempting but ultimately harmful ways to deal with stress. In one study, the APA found that women use unhealthy coping mechanisms like comfort food (41 percent) and alcohol (28 percent) to deal with holiday stress.

If that sounds like you, don’t beat yourself up. At Vivacity Care Center, our goal is to help you find healthy strategies to manage stress all year round.

Five Everyday Practices

1. Get out of the house if you’re feeling isolated.

Recognizing feelings of loneliness and isolation is important because listening to your own thoughts is a tool to increase internal awareness. Use this awareness to reach out to your loved ones, friends, or community during the holidays and lean on them for support.

If you’re struggling, ask yourself:
  • “Who are my biggest supporters?”
  • “How can I reach out to them?”

I have patients that make a list of positive and re-charging people in their lives and then set an intention to contact and make plans with at least one of them.

2. Stick to your routine as much as you can—and forgive yourself when you can’t.

It can be comforting to hold on to traditions in hectic times. You can find peace and tranquility in routines, where you can be at ease and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of calling attention to your thoughts, noticing them without judgement, letting them be, and being present in the moment.

If you’re struggling, ask yourself:
  • “What daily routine makes me feel the most at ease during the holidays?”

3. Lower your caffeine intake.

Caffeine can act as a stimulant, mimicking anxiousness and irritability and leaving you feeling emotional. Caffeine can also zap your hydration, which may worsen your circulation and deprive your brain of oxygen. Make sure to be aware of how much caffeine is typical for you, how much is excessive, and how your intake might be affecting you.

If you’re struggling, ask yourself:
  • “How much caffeine do I usually drink and is this excessive?”
  • “How can I set the intention to stay hydrated during the holidays?”

4. Simplify holiday meals and gift giving.

Keep it simple. Not overdoing or overcommitting during the holidays can be a huge stress reliever. Whenever possible, take a deep breath and find out what’s most important to you. Prioritizing quality over quantity can help you keep your attention on what really matters this season.

If you’re struggling, ask yourself:
  • “How can I keep it simple this holiday season?”
  • “What’s important to me that I can bring my attention and appreciation to?”

I’ve listened to patients that really struggle with being fully in charge for all holiday meals, gift giving, and party/event planning. As they ask themselves what really matters and they shift their focus toward simplifying things, their gratitude and happiness meter increase.

5. Avoid or limit triggering places, events, or conversations, or mentally prep for them.

Your well-being should be your top priority. Set yourself up for success against your personal stress triggers by using these tools: support, forgiveness, appreciation, awareness, mindfulness, self-care, and the right to say “no.”

If you’re struggling, ask yourself:
  • “What are my top three holiday stress triggers?”
  • “What can I do differently or have done differently in the past to combat these triggers?”
  • “What small changes can I make this holiday season to decrease these triggers?”

I had a conversation with a patient who was working on decreasing negative conversations with their family members during the holidays. They decided it would be in their best interest to limit their phone contact with certain draining family members.This allowed this individual to take control of the conversation and steer it toward the positive.

Feeling more hopeful about this holiday season? Or are you still a little nervous? Try to take a deep breath and remember this: Holiday stress is real, and it’s common. Then think back to these five practices, and maybe start with one.

Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season. You’ve got this!

About Heidi Beer, NBHWC

Heidi Beer is a health coach at the North Country Homes Care Center and recently moved to Spokane from Alaska. Heidi is always striving to help patients learn, grow, and lead a healthy lifestyle. With a background in exercise science, fitness, and athletic coaching, she became a health and wellness coach over 13 years ago.

Meet Heidi Beer, NBHWC