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How to make the holidays less stressful

November 27, 2015

You made it through Thanksgiving……barely.

All the cooking and baking. The in-laws. The fighting. Overnight guests. Diet woes. The stress!

Now it has begun all over again with the arrival of Black Friday, the official start to the holiday shopping season. The crowds. The expense. Wrapping. Along with many of the same stressors felt at Thanksgiving.

What’s a person to do?

“As fun as the holiday season can be, it can also be stressful,” explains Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of Adult Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center. “Lots of drinking and eating, lots of entertaining, lots of spending – it is important to do these things in moderation. If we get too tired, if we eat and drink too much, if we’re too stressed by preparations or shopping – all of this can take a toll, both mentally and physically, that can really dampen our holiday celebrations.”

Dr. Anfang noted that increased family contact may also be stressful.

“Sometimes bringing together family members can lead to ‘too much’ togetherness – fighting at the dinner table, re-opening old wounds, triggering buried conflicts. It can be helpful to give yourself a little space, try to de-escalate tense situations, and remember that this is supposed to be about fun and celebration,” said Dr. Anfang.

“For individuals who are estranged from their families, holidays can also be a very lonely and isolating time, when it seems like everyone else around you is celebrating.”

How to relieve your holiday stress

The American Psychological Association and Dr. Anfang offer the following tips to handle stress:

  • Take time for yourself — There may be pressure to be everything to everyone. You’re only one person who can only accomplish certain things. Sometimes self-care is the best thing you can do and others will benefit when you’re stress-free. Go for a long walk, get a massage or take time out to listen to your favorite music or read a book. All of us need some time to recharge our batteries, and by slowing down you will actually have more energy to accomplish your goals.
  • Volunteer — Find a local charity, such as a soup kitchen or a shelter where you and your family can volunteer. Also, participating in a giving tree or an adopt-a-family program, and helping those who are living in true poverty may help you put your own economic struggles in perspective.
  • Have realistic expectations — No Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or other holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory. If your children’s wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about the family's finances this year and remind them that the holidays aren't about expensive gifts.
  • Remember what's important — The barrage of holiday advertising can make you forget what the holiday season is really about. When your holiday expense list is running longer than your monthly budget, scale back and remind yourself that what makes a great celebration is loved ones, not store-bought presents, elaborate decorations or gourmet food.
  • Seek support — Talk about your anxiety with your friends and family. Getting things out in the open can help you navigate your feelings and work toward a solution for your stress. Don’t isolate.

The difference between holiday blues and depression

While singer Andy Williams’ popular holiday classic proclaims: “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” that just isn’t the case for everyone. Some may have recently lost a loved one, have a tight budget that makes them unable to afford the presents they really want to buy and give this year, or find that their family obligations are overwhelming.

Elvis called that scenario a “Blue Christmas,” but what’s the difference between feeling down and stressed, as opposed to being depressed?

Many people get stressed or “blue” at this time of year, and that can be normal, said the Baystate psychiatrist.

“It is also harder for some people when the days get shorter and colder. We get concerned when symptoms start causing significant functional impairment, making it harder for you to function at work and at home. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite and weight, decreased motivation and energy, daily tearfulness, thoughts to hurt yourself or wishing you were dead – these are potential signs of clinical depression,” said Dr. Anfang.

“If you see these symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, that’s the time to contact a primary care provider or seek evaluation by a mental health professional. Depression is very treatable, and no one should suffer in silence, especially at the holidays,” he added.

Find more information about behavioral health services at Baystate Health.

For immediate assistance with a behavioral health issue, call Baystate’s Central Intake line at 413-794-5555.