The holiday period — Christmas, Hanukkah, new year celebrations and more — can be a great time of celebration, but it is also one of the most stressful times of the year. One in ten people, and one in three people with mental health problems, struggle to cope during the holiday season, while 41 percent of people report getting into debt during this period.
Further, 69 percent of people are stressed by a “lack of time,” and the same percentage of people also feel they have a “lack of money.” A majority of people, 51 percent, are affected by the “pressure to give or get gifts.” Almost half of people would love to just skip the holiday season altogether.
This sort of stress can manifest itself as problems with sleeping, headaches, exhaustion, problems concentrating, loss of appetite, a decline in productivity and, of course, as short tempers and negativity.
Why celebrating is stressful
During the holiday season, we tend to overindulge and drink more alcohol — which can impact mental health symptoms. At the same time we’re all overexerting socially, which can make us tired and stressed. Routine is disrupted, and while that has its benefits (interrupting your routine can help you gain perspective and see the bigger picture) it can also be taxing for some people. Psychologists refer to this as “shifting set” — where we have to change the way we think to adapt to a different environment.
Finally, there is a lot of social pressure to enjoy spending time with one’s family. However, many people have lost family members, may not get along with some or all of their family, may live far away from family or may not be religious. All of this can lead to feelings of exclusion. It can also see people feeling pressured to act cheerful, when other aspects of their lives mean that they don’t feel that way inclined.
Here are some ways to combat holiday stress:
1. Do something you really want to do
This one may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised by how much of the holidays we spend doing what is expected, and ticking off that list of friends and family to visit. Be sure to take out some time to do whatever it is that you really enjoy and that relaxes you, be it reading, painting, going for long walks or just getting away from everything for a bit.
“If you are spending time with lots of people and can find it overwhelming, it might be helpful to plan in regular breaks where you can clear your head, and stop negative thoughts and emotions from building up,” Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, told Netdoctor.
2. Organize the chaos
With more money to spend than usual (on food or gifts, depending on what you get up to over the holidays), and people to see, as well as an interrupted routine, it’s important to plan ahead. Decide on a spending limit, make shopping lists and to-do lists that are manageable, and schedule your key visits and tasks well ahead of time. This will help prevent any financial stress. It’ll also ensure that you don’t forget important things, and it’ll guarantee that you have control over this chaotic time of year.
3. Set boundaries
Beyond the spending limit, be clear with yourself what is too much. Perhaps four hours with the family is a good amount, but five hours is pushing it. Maybe you don’t mind going to dinners, but you can’t tolerate theme parks. Put your own mental well-being first, and tell the family you’ll have to leave by eight and take a pass on Disneyland.
4. Keep your expectations realistic
Apart from evaluating how you want to spend your time, also be clear about what you want the holidays to mean to you, and set your expectations for something possible and reasonable. “The holidays are just another time of year, certainly something to mark, but not the end-all, be-all,” said Ellen Braaten, an HMS associate professor of psychology.
Comparing yourself to others (amount spent on gifts, the amount of decorations you put up or how many dinners you’re invited to) is a recipe for unhappiness. Everyone is different, facing a whole gamut of troubles that you may not see, and comparing yourself to them isn’t helpful. Instead, live your life well, and be supportive of others rather than competing with them.
6. Maintain the other mental health basics
With routine gone out the window, it can be hard to keep up the exercise or outdoor activity, healthy eating, venting to friends, quality sleep and other practices that you normally employ to stay on track. Nevertheless, it’s worth it — it’s going back to these basics that will really help.