With Thanksgiving recently behind us, the holiday hustle and bustle is in full swing as we ring in the season of good cheer.
Emails for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals have already filled inboxes, prompting us to get busy checking off items on our shopping and to-do lists. And for the next month, commercials and billboards will continue to bombard us with bargains for that perfect gift or special ingredient for a holiday meal.
While it can be a joyous time of year, for many people the holidays bring a whirlwind of demands that can add another layer of stress to already busy lives. Cooking special meals, decorating, and shopping for gifts are just a few of the rituals that mark the holiday season in many homes across America. Research conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that these seemingly joyous – and for some, perhaps even routine – occasions can be particularly stressful for women. The 2006 study suggested one reason could be the additional demands women feel they have on them during the holidays. For example, results showed that during Thanksgiving, women are nearly twice as likely to report that they will cook, shop for food, and clean dirty dishes, compared to men.
In addition to holiday rituals, circumstances such as financial hardships, family tensions, being away from loved ones, or the death or illness of a partner can add to holiday stressors and intensify feelings of sadness or loneliness.
“Loneliness is one of the most common stressors when it comes to depression at any time of year, but that is particularly true around the holidays,” says David Cordon, MD, medical director of Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Outpatient Services. “Part of the problem is that we are constantly exposed to images of families and friends happily celebrating together, seemingly without a care in the world. We start comparing our real lives to these fabricated ones seen on social media, or television, or in movies and advertisements, and it can intensify the loneliness.”
Moreover, the strain of the holiday season can cause individuals to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overindulging in alcohol to manage stress.
“Alcohol is increasingly portrayed as a go-to stress reliever for women,” says Nicole Orro, LPC, LCADC, director of Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Hamilton New Jersey site.
“We’ve all seen the ‘mommy sippy cup’ or ‘it’s wine o’clock somewhere’ memes. Women are often very engaged in social media for interpersonal connections and self-care, and they’re being bombarded with messages promoting alcohol consumption. This kind of cultural climate can grant a pass for the overuse of alcohol, particularly for women who are already feeling vulnerable, dealing with too many stressors, or struggling with emotional issues like anxiety or depression,” Orro says.
Though the holidays can be a difficult time, experts say there are strategies that can help reduce the impact of stress this season.
For example, Cordon suggests taking a digital vacation can help people unplug and engage in leisure activities with their loved ones. “Consider reducing screen time by putting your phone out of reach during mealtimes or keeping devices out of the bedroom at night,” he says, adding that avoiding too much screen time can also help to keep unrealistic expectations of creating a picture-perfect holiday at bay. Instead of trying to do it all, he suggests limiting commitments to only those that will improve overall mental well-being, rather than deplete it. “Give yourself permission to say ‘no.’”
Studies have also shown that regular physical activity and exposure to natural sunlight can improve your mental health and elevate mood. Orro suggests setting a goal of 150 minutes of exercise a week – even in blustery, wintery weather, bundling up and spending time outside can reduce stress – maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and balancing holiday indulgences with healthy foods and lots of water.
While it’s not always possible to avoid excessive stress during the holidays, mindfulness can be a beneficial practice to help you respond to negative thoughts in a different way.
“Mindfulness is the ability to focus on what’s happening in the present moment without worrying about the past or the future. It is the ability to acknowledge your emotions, thoughts and feelings and experience them without judging,” says Jessica Levy, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Princeton House Behavioral Health in Eatontown, New Jersey, which includes the Women’s Program.
Whether navigating a jam-packed mall, or preparing a family feast, Levy says when people are feeling overwhelmed, it’s helpful to stop and count down from 10 to zero, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly with each number. The momentary pause can help people feel more relaxed. Yoga and meditation can also be valuable tools for practicing mindfulness.
While many people experience increased levels of stress around the holidays, when it interferes with work, school and relationships, it is time to seek professional counseling.
“The holidays can be both the most joyous and most stressful time of year,” Cordon says. “There are strategies we can all use to help manage feelings of sadness and anxiety, but anyone who feels persistent depression-related symptoms such as changes in sleeping patterns, isolation or avoidance, or inability to complete routine daily tasks, should seek professional help.”
By acknowledging your emotions and talking with a health care professional, you can focus on what’s most important to you this time of year.