"During the holidays, stress can come from a variety of sources," explained Psychiatrist Pamela Drake, M.D. "This time of year often brings a large number of demands, such as shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining. In addition, few people seem to have the extra resources they need to spend on gifts, parties or unplanned expenses."
"Juggling work and added family responsibilities, such as planning for holiday gatherings and shopping for gifts, leaves most people feeling like they can't take time to relax during the rush to get everything done. It is normal to feel overwhelmed during the holiday season. However, it is also important to put things in perspective and realize that the holiday spirit is about family and togetherness, not tinsel and presents."
According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), multiple stressors experienced by many people during the holidays are lack of time (mentioned by 69 percent of people), lack of money (69 percent), and pressure to give or get gifts (51 percent). In addition, men and women who experience elevated levels of stress, rate their psychological and physical health lower than those who are not experiencing stress and are more likely to experience a range of health ailments like sadness (59 percent), sleep problems (56 percent), and lack of energy (55 percent).
"Stress is what people experience when their level of stressors exceeds their ability to cope," Dr. Drake continued. "A high level of stress puts a person at increased risk of serious health consequences, including obesity, heart disease and depression."
"People may also develop other stress responses such as headaches, excessive drinking, over-eating and difficulty sleeping. Even more people experience post-holiday let down after the first of the year. This can result from disappointments during the preceding months, which are compounded by their excess fatigue and stress."
The APA has also conducted other research polls focusing on holiday stress and found that nearly half of all U.S. women experience heightened stress during the holidays, and they rely more on unhealthy behaviors to manage their stress levels, compared to the rest of the year. For example, during the calendar year, 31 percent of women turn to food to manage stress compared to 19 percent of men. However during the holidays, 41 percent of women use comfort eating as a source of stress relief, versus a 25 percent of men, which indicates that holiday pressures are having a greater impact on women's behaviors.
"Heightened stress during the holidays can lead to unhealthy stress management behaviors, such as overeating and drinking to excess," Dr. Drake added. "People tend to reduce their stress in ways they have learned over the course of time, because they turn to what they know. They may take comfort in unhealthy stress management techniques because they're familiar, even though they're not good for their health."
"People who cope with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors, regardless of the time of year, may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but end up creating significant health problems in the long run, and eventually more stress. However, there are other behaviors you can use to relieve stress and its effects, which may be both healthier for you and longer lasting."
Tips for Dealing With Holiday Stress
1. Take time for yourself: Pay attention to your own needs and feelings during the holiday season. Engage in activities that you and your family enjoy and find relaxing. Take time to recharge by slowing down and gathering energy to accomplish your goals. Go for a long walk, get a massage or take time out to listen to your favorite music.
2. Don't abandon healthy habits: Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
3. Have realistic expectations: Talk to your kids, family or friends about expectations for gifts and holiday activities. Be open with them if money is an issue.
4. Remember what's important: When your holiday expense list is running longer than your monthly budget, scale back. In addition, try to consider stressful situations with a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing events out of proportion.
5. Make connections: View the holidays as a time to reconnect with people. Accept help and support from those who care about you. Even volunteering at a local charity is a good way to connect with others and assist someone in need.
6. Live in the moment: Look for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of everyday life and don't spend your time rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
"You can start managing holiday stress by identifying the sources of stress that you can eliminate," Dr. Drake concluded. "Begin with internal stressors, such as fears or unrealistic expectations, as well as external stressors, such as family or work demands. Next, seek out effective strategies for coping with stress, including exercise, music, hobbies, other creative outlets, humor or simplifying your life by just saying no."
"Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable, hopeless, or unable to face routine chores. If these feelings persist, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional."
Pamela Drake, M.D., is a board certified psychiatrist affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff. Her office is located at 12680 Salem-Warren Road in Salem, 330-337-0088.