The holiday season can be a time of joy, parties and family gatherings. But for many people, it is also a time of high levels of stress or holiday blues.
"Several factors contribute to feelings of stress during the holidays, such as fatigue, unrealistic expectations, overspending, or too much or too little time with family or friends," explained Cynde McCallum, BSN, RN-BC, Program Director for Salem Community Hospital's Behavioral Medicine and Wellness Center.
The three main trigger points for holiday stress or depression are related to relationships, physical demands and financial constraints that are intensified during the holiday season.
"Relationships can cause conflict or stress at any time of the year," advised Cynde. "However, tensions are heightened during the holidays when family misunderstandings and conflicts are often more noticeable. On the other hand, if you're facing the holidays without a loved one, you may find yourself especially lonely or sad.
"The physical strain of shopping, attending social gatherings and preparing holiday meals can leave many people feeling exhausted. Exercise and sleep, which are good antidotes for stress and fatigue, may take a back seat to heavy scheduling demands and overindulgence in food or drink. Overspending during the holidays on gifts, travel, food and entertainment may also increase stress, as people try to make ends meet while ensuring that everyone on their gift list is happy.
"Signs of stress can include feeling impatient, worried, irritable, and, in some cases, depressed," Cynde added. "People may also experience sleep or appetite disturbances, or other physical complaints such as muscle tension, headaches, fatigue or stomach aches.
"Many people also experience a post-holiday let down after January 1st. This letdown can result from disappointments during the preceding months compounded by the excess fatigue, financial obligations and stress of the holidays."
"Try to look at your true priorities this holiday season and what they mean to you and your family," she continued. "This will help you make good choices about how you will spend your time, money, and energy."
Gift Giving: "Keep track of your holiday spending," Cynde suggested. "Overspending may lead to feelings of anxiousness and depression when the bills arrive after the holidays. Try not to equate love with the cost and quantity of gifts. It is the feeling behind the gift that gives the most enjoyment and is the most appreciated."
Unfortunately, many people end up paying for gifts and other Christmas expenses long after the season has ended, with nearly one-third of Americans still paying off their debts from the previous holiday season.
Gift-giving comprises only 37 percent of the average holiday budget, which includes travel, entertainment, food, decorations, cards and postage, and many people don't budget for extra expenses. Before making a holiday purchase, ask why are you buying the item, is it something that you can afford now and is it something that you or another person really wants or needs?
Expectations: "Don't worry about having a perfectly cleaned or decorated house," said Cynde. "Simplify and focus on the purpose of the get together. Ask others to help with the cooking or to bring their favorite dish.
"Evaluate past traditions and be willing to let go of your ideas of the way things 'should be.' Don't spend the holidays just fulfilling obligations. Pick and choose what you want to do rather than what you think others expect.
"In addition, take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Don't let your 'to-do' list control you. Set realistic goals for yourself and leave some time unplanned for relaxation."
The Holiday Blues
Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anger can intensify when contrasted with the joy expected during the holidays. Factors that can contribute to holiday depression include:
- Associating the holidays with unresolved family issues or childhood experiences
- Having an expectation that you "should" feel happy
- Facing the loss of or isolation from a loved one or a major disappointment
- Having unrealistic expectations of yourself, your family or friends
- Drinking more alcohol, a depressant, which is more available during the holidays
"Try to spend time with people who care about you," she recommended. "If you feel there is no one available, then reach out to others in need or attend a religious service or community gathering so that you are not alone. If you feel you need the help of a trained professional to sort through your feelings, don't be afraid to seek assistance."
Lastly, it is important to recognize the difference between holiday depression and clinical depression. Signs of clinical depression include:
- A disruption in "normal" activity that affects work and inter-personal relationships
- Inability to enjoy life or feel pleasure
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Thoughts of suicide or personal harm
"If you or a loved one experiences the signs of clinical depression, you should speak to a physician or trained mental health professional immediately to discuss the treatment options available," concluded Cynde.
Cynde McCallum, BSN, RN-BC, is the Program Director for the Behavioral Medicine and Wellness Center at Salem Community Hospital, which offers specialized outpatient treatment for adults facing a range of mental health issues. The Behavioral Medicine and Wellness Center is located at 2020 East State Street, Suite J in Salem, 330-337-4925.