Stress, Anxiety and the Holidays

Posted: December 5, 2018
Stress, Anxiety and the Holidays

Stress and anxiety can arise if we’re feeling overwhelmed. The antidote: Be realistic, plan ahead, be kind to yourself

With the holiday season in full swing and 2019 around the corner, people often find themselves feeling stressed and overwhelmed – unwelcomed “guests” that come from a dizzying array of seasonal demands, including parties, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining.

The holidays also seem to exacerbate family issues and conflicts, high expectations (having the perfect tree, dinner and decorations), excessive eating, and financial concerns arising from unreasonable spending on gifts. And of course there’s the holiday noise and bustle in stores and malls that can irritate even the calmest shopper. According to Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., a Manhattan-based psychiatrist and President and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, people can take practical steps to dial down their stress and anxiety leading up to and including the holidays, especially if the season has taken an emotional toll on you in the past. You can minimize the stress that accompanies the holidays and maybe even end up enjoying yourself more than you thought you would.

“We can learn to recognize holiday triggers, such as financial pressures or personal demands, and combat them before they lead to a meltdown,” says Dr. Borenstein. “With a little planning and some positive actions, you can find ways to enjoy the holidays.”

Try simple activities that make you feel better. “Exercise, for example, is a natural antidepressant that can lift your mood by boosting endorphins—natural chemicals in the body,” says Dr. Borenstein. Exercises like running and aerobics also boost norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. “Even a casual walk can help a great deal to reset yourself,” he says.

Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. “It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season,” Dr. Borenstein explains.

Connect with people you trust. If you feel lonely, seek out trusted friends, if possible, or attend community, religious or other social events that offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others is another good way to lift your spirits.

Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Find something that clears your mind, slows your breathing and restores inner calm. Examples: step outside to look at the stars; listen to soothing music; or read a book you’re interested in.

The holidays don't have to be perfect. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. If, for example, your adult children can't visit, celebrate together in other ways, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.

Set aside family differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.

Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Also, try alternatives, like donating to a charity in someone’s name, giving homemade gifts or starting a family gift exchange.

Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. And make lists. That'll help prevent last-minute scrambling. And ask family or friends ahead of time to help with party preparation and cleanup.

Learn to say no. By saying yes when you should say no, you can feel resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. And if your work is unyielding during the season, try to remove something else from your agenda to give you more time for yourself.

Stick with healthy habits. The temptation to cope by self-medicating, binge eating or excessive drinking coincides with the party spirit of the holidays, which can exacerbate negative feelings. So try not to over-indulge. “Alcohol, for example, is a depressant and can actually increase feelings of depression, stress, anxiety, and guilt,” says Dr. Borenstein. Consider these suggestions:

  • Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so you don't go overboard on sweets or drinks.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Drink plenty of water to refresh yourself.

Make realistic New Year’s resolutions. Most people don’t keep the resolutions they’ve made the year before. “If you make a resolution, pick something realistic and short-term – maybe something you can handle in the month of January – a simple goal you can achieve without adding more stress to your life,” suggests Dr. Borenstein. “Life is stressful enough without contributing to it unnecessarily.”

Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad, anxious, irritable and hopeless, unable to sleep or face routine chores. “If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional who know how to help you,” says Dr. Borenstein.