For millions of people in America, December is probably the best month of the year. It signals the beginning of the holiday season – Christmas – and the start of another year. In fact, Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2013 revealed that up to 92% of Americans celebrate Christmas.
Even more interesting is that this includes atheists as well as Buddhists, Hindus and even Jews. Additionally, Americans are a busy group of people during Christmas. Common activities during this time include; family activities/events, gift giving, getaways and shopping among others. It is no wonder then that many people associate the holiday season with fun, comfort and merry.
At the same time, people are still expected to fulfill regular obligations such as paying the bills, caring for sick/aging loved ones or even trying to beat traffic. Simply put, many people have to cope with additional obligations and responsibilities during Christmas. People are required to fulfill all these obligations within a short and limited time. Moreover, people tend to have higher expectations during Christmas season than in other times of the year.
Researchers note that most people experience intensified emotions during the holiday season; for example, one may easily get annoyed during a family event while another may feel overwhelmingly lonely. Others may worry too much about where they will get finances to help them facilitate their plans for the holidays. All this can have a significant and negative effect on the mental health of an individual. In fact, it often leads to what experts call holiday stress or simply winter blues.
Holiday stress is quite common in the United States. According to the American Psychological Association, up to 8 out of every 10 Americans expect stress levels to increase during the holidays. On the other hand, some researchers have also claimed that up to 90% of Americans stress over at least one aspect of Christmas.
The symptoms of holiday stress pretty include:
- Feeling gloomy and sad
- Increased anxiety
- Body pains and aches
- Increased irritability
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep.
Holiday blues, if left untreated, often leads to bad habits such as binge eating and excessive consumption of alcohol.
Who Is Vulnerable To Holiday Stress?
There is widespread consensus that holiday blues can affect anyone regardless of age. This means that even children could get affected. However, an APA survey established that women are more likely than men to experience heightened stress levels during Christmas.
Based on the survey, 44% reported increased stress levels while only 31% of men did. Some experts attribute this to the fact that women have even more responsibilities in the festive season; Particularly when It comes to things such as shopping, hosting, cooking and even cleaning up after.
The APA survey also found that holiday stress is more likely among people in the lower middle-income bracket ($30,000-$50,000). While more than half of people in this bracket reported increasing stress levels, only 31% of low-income earners reported increased stress levels.
At the same time, only 40% of those who earned more than $50,000 reported increased stress. Parents are also susceptible to holiday stress. In fact, some researchers have gone as far as to claim that some parents prefer work stress over family holiday stress.
Causes of Holiday Stress
(Source: Mayo Clinic)
During the holidays, people are bound to experience increased stress for the following reasons;
1. Time and Money
For hundreds of years, Americans have celebrated Christmas. Men and women alike try the best they can to make the holidays as fun as possible for their families and themselves. To add on that, Christmas season comes with increased commercialism. Shops and service providers advertise their offerings even more. People are widely encouraged to buy more gifts during the season.
Unfortunately, most of this comes at a relatively high price and also needs a lot of time. It comes as no surprise then that time, money and commercialism are the leading holiday stressors. The Consumer Reports National Research Center estimates that up to 37% of Americans fear running into debt during the holiday season.
Many financial analysts also note that many American families live paycheck to paycheck. Similarly, in a recent survey of 1,000 Americans across different income levels, researchers found that 45% of the respondents would prefer to skip Christmas due to the financial pressures it brings. Furthermore, 59% of the respondents said they expected to carry debt into the New Year. Numerous studies have established a strong link between financial strain and worsening mental health.
2. Work Related Stress
Work is one of the leading causes of stress and emotional distress in America. This includes stressors such as heavy workloads and a lack of workplace growth opportunities. While one would expect a reduction in work-related stress during the holiday season, the opposite is true.
Even in the holiday season, work remains a major source of mental health issues for Americans. An APA survey found that at least 56% of Americans still feel that work is the biggest stressor even during the holiday season. However, it takes a different form with people worrying about work-related issues such as;
- Whether work-related obligations will interrupt family time and festivities
- Getting sufficient time off work
- Not meeting the end of year expectations at work.
- Losing work hours at work due to celebrations (and a subsequent inability to pay bills)
- Excess pressure to buy gifts for co-workers or attend work-based parties and celebrations
3. Associating Holiday Season with Unhappy Memories
During the holidays, it is common for people to go home and celebrate with family for old times sake. For some people, the memories are positive and welcome. However, for many other people, the holidays bring back a lot of bitter and unwanted memories. Such individuals find themselves remembering their inadequate childhoods, departed loved ones and any other bad memory linked to the time of the year.
4. Family Issues
Although bringing the family together is a cause of joy and celebration, it also comes with its own set of challenges. Some studies have identified family as one of the most common sources of holiday stress. Family gatherings often feature conflicting personalities, values and beliefs.
In the case of people suffering from other health issues such as Bipolar or depression may also dread the stigma that they face from other family members. Unresolved family conflicts and issues may also make family gatherings during Christmas more stressful. The Consumer Reports National Research Center suggests that 24% of Americans get stressed from seeing certain family members.
Conversely, the absence of family and friends may also make the holidays much more stressful. Some people do not get the opportunity to celebrate with friends and family. Seeing others spend time with family and friends may give rise to sadness, loneliness and ultimately stress and depression. Even more worrying is that most people ignore these negative emotions in a bid to stay true to the holiday spirit of cheerfulness and joy. This puts more strain on their mental health.
5. Life Changes (or the Lack of)
Christmas holidays come at the end of the year. Because of this, holiday season tends to underscore changes in peoples lives. These include changes such as separation, divorce or even death.. The holiday season may also underscore the monotony of life. For example, stress and anxiety levels may increase from having to; see the same faces, do the same activities, use the same dishware or even eat the same food. All this can have a toll on an individual’s mental health.
6. Lowered Defenses
As noted earlier, Americans are often quite busy during Christmas holidays. In most cases, many are busy trying to ensure their loved ones have the best holidays. Christmas in America also comes along with the cold and flu season meaning that even the immune systems of people are under attack. On top of that, most people engage in bad eating, drinking and even sleeping behavior. When combined, all these factors have a strong negative impact on the physical and mental health of individuals.
Dealing With Holiday Stress
There are some ways that one can avoid and deal with holiday-related stress. Some of these measures are preventative while others are reactive. Some preventative measures to avoid Christmas blues include;
1. Planning of Time
Most people tend to ignore the importance of planning. Other people oppose planning to argue that spontaneity makes the holidays more fun and unpredictable. The truth of the matter is that spontaneity and unpredictability can easily cause negative emotions and stress.
Experts, therefore, recommend making all shopping, visiting, events and even cooking plans in advance. This is particularly helpful in preventing last-minute pressures and rushes. It is also important to plan for any help that one may need during the holiday season.
2. Make a Budget
Research has established that money is a major cause of holiday stress. This is hardly a surprise given that Christmas is a time for gift and food shopping as well as getaways and vacations. Luckily, people can avoid financial stresses during the holiday season by making a budget and sticking to it.
Knowing how much one can afford to spend is a key step in ensuring that all holiday activities and spending is within limits and one’s financial power. It also ensures that one goes into the New Year free of debt and financial strain.
3. Make Two To-do Lists
Christmas time is often associated with giving and sharing. Subsequently, it is quite easy for people to forget to make time for themselves. According to many mental health experts, creating time for oneself can help to improve moods and even make it easier to give to others.
One way to avoid investing too much time and energy on others at the expense of oneself is to make two to-do lists. One of the lists should outline what one wants to do for others and the second list should outline what one wants to do for herself/himself.
4. Simplicity is Key
Some people go overboard in trying to ensure that their loved ones have a perfect festive season. However, people only end up exerting more pressure on themselves. Additionally, some people try to do too much within the short holiday season.
Once again, this only adds to the pressure and stress. It is therefore of paramount importance to ensure that one sets realistic goals and expectations. For example, people experiencing financial hardships do not have to host and entertain relatives and friends. Plan to buy realistic and affordable gifts, attend a realistic number of events and make a manageable number of visits.
Experts also advise people to remember that it is perfectly okay to say no to events and activities that may cause negative emotions. It is better for people to stick to those things that bring them joy and happiness.
Once the holiday season kicks in, however, people may find it harder to prevent holiday stress. In this case, it is important to respond appropriately to holiday stress and not let it morphs into something more chronic.
Things People Can Do To Manage Christmas Stress
1. Recognizing Feelings and Emotions
People do not have to act happy and jovial just because it is the holiday season. According to experts, people are allowed to feel sadness and grief even during the festive season. This includes wanting to stay alone or taking time to cry.
Expressing these feelings and emotions freely is fundamental to keeping holiday stress and anxiety at bay. Locking up these negative emotions and putting on a brave face only worsens places more pressure on mental health.
2. Moderation in Indulgence
People deal with stress in different ways. In the holiday season, however, most people over-indulge in food and alcohol in a bid to keep away the blues. It is true, the holidays are a time for people to enjoy comfort foods and drinks, but they must do this within limits.
Over-indulging in everything is not a realistic way of dealing with stress. It is likely to have a toll on mental health. This is down to the fact that most of the comfort foods and drinks are in most cases empty calories. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to other problems such as weight issues and self-esteem issues all of which add to the holiday stress.
Nonetheless, having moderate portions of comfort foods and drinks is not enough. Nutritionists advise maintaining healthy eating habits during the holidays. This includes prioritizing healthy and balance diet foods over pleasure foods and drinks.
3. Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle is more than just a balanced diet. During the holidays, it is easy for people to have so much fun that they forget to exercise or even get enough sleep. Granted, the festive season is often hectic. However, according to health specialists, even 30 minutes of physical activity, three times a week can do wonders.
One could take part in activities such as walking, jogging, swimming or even playing a game of football. Exercise improves physical health as well as mental health. According to studies, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins which act as natural painkillers and mood boosters.
People should also ensure they get sufficient sleep every single day. Many sleep experts recommend getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep daily. The human body requires enough sleep for it to repair and refresh itself. Poor and insufficient sleep is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety, irritability, and aggressiveness. Additionally, psychologists note that insufficient sleep reduces an individuals ability to cope with stress.
4. Putting Time for Personal Breaks
Spending even 15 minutes alone every day during the holiday season can help manage holiday stress. Taking a breather allows people to clear the minds, slow their breathing, and ultimately results in a calmer mind. Other good relaxation activities include getting a massage, going for a short drive or listening to some relaxing music.
In some cases, people may find it extremely difficult to deal with holiday stress. Some people may even start falling into depression. For such people, it is important to seek professional help from a mental health specialist.