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Holiday Stress – Types, Causes, Signs, and Management

The holidays are just around the corner, and there are plenty of reasons to look forward to this time of year. Reuniting with family and friends, spending time over leisurely meals, and exchanging gifts are all traditions many of us cherish. But for others, there are plenty of reasons to dread the next few weeks and all the stress that comes with large celebrations. Managing holiday stress can be tricky. But with the right advice and support, you can navigate the holidays without becoming overwhelmed.

Types of Holiday Stress

Everyone feels stressed and a little overwhelmed from time to time. Stress is our body’s natural response to perceived threats. As the brain senses a challenge, it releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that help us face the ‘threat.’ Our heartbeat quickens, and we become more focused, which helps us deal with the challenge in front of us.

Everyone experiences stress reactions like these. Some people feel stressed sooner than others, but it is important to remember that you are experiencing something natural. However, prolonged, persistent stress is not a natural response to temporary challenges. If stress during the holidays does not subside, it can predispose you to chronic mental health issues.

For most of us, the holidays cause a degree of stress. A 2021 survey conducted on behalf of the American Psychiatric Association revealed deeper insights into how Americans feel about the holidays. The results show that adults are five times more likely to deal with increased stress levels during the holidays than decreased stress levels. Last year, contracting Covid-19 was one of the main concerns. Whilst this particular concern may be somewhat diminished, other leading causes of holiday stress included:

  • Finding suitable gifts
  • Being able to afford gifts for all family members
  • Missing family members

Upcoming holidays can trigger a combination of financial, physical, and emotional concerns for many. This cocktail of stress triggers is difficult to manage without support. That is why psychologists brace for increased demand for appointments and the general consequences of the emotional fallout at this time of the year.

Psychologists know that their clients suffer from different types of holiday stress which are triggered by a unique combination of factors. Understanding the underlying causes of an individual’s stress is often the first step toward treating the stress and developing more beneficial coping strategies.

Here is a closer look at different types of stress, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.

Stress Type 1 – Family and Social Pressures

It is all too easy to develop an idealistic picture of your family in the run-up to the holidays. Many of us dream of family gatherings where everyone gets along famously and just enjoys each other’s company. In reality, though, very few families live up to that ideal. Family gatherings bring together different characters and personalities who may not agree on everything and rarely see each other outside of the holidays. Coming together, perhaps in a limited space, can exacerbate differences and lead to tensions. This is only natural because, for the rest of the year, each family member lives their own life with their own habits and routines. Blending those habits together, even temporarily, is not always easy.

Conflict can arise even from small arguments between family members, and this may spoil the atmosphere for hours, if not a day or two. Granted, some of us thrive on this type of conflict, but other family members may find them stressful. Then, there are the practicalities of holiday celebrations: cooking special meals for large groups of people and buying presents for dozens of people can all lead to stress.

It would be unfair only to look at family conflicts without also considering stress caused by wider social pressures arising from our professional and personal lives. For the past two years, occasions like work Christmas parties had to be canceled in many cases. For some, that meant missing out on an opportunity to destress and socialize with colleagues in an informal environment. Others felt a sense of relief at the idea of not having to attend large social gatherings.

This year, many employers will celebrate the holidays once more with their teams. Whilst these parties are an excellent opportunity to say thank you to hardworking employees, they also bring a few pressures. Not everyone will find it easy to afford a festive outfit or socialize within a large group.

Apart from work Christmas parties and other holiday events, you may find yourself invited to numerous gatherings within your social circle. Whilst all those events have been scheduled with great intentions, they can soon trigger stress. A full diary may leave you without time to relax. Attending several celebratory events every week also puts a strain on finances at a time when most people’s budgets are already stretched. Understanding those pressures is the first step toward dealing with them successfully.

Stress Type 2 – Unreasonable Expectations

Many of us have an idealistic idea of what the holidays should be like. Fueled by movies and other stories, it becomes easy to imagine a winter wonderland with cozy log fires and a beautifully decorated tree, if you are celebrating Christmas. Rather than arguing with each other, family members come together and share stories about the past year. Meals are pulled out of the oven right on time without recipes having worked perfectly and with no burned edges in sight.

Does this sound like a movie script? That is because it is really just an accumulation of unreasonable expectations. There is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy the holidays. But if you have unreasonably high expectations, you will almost certainly be disappointed. In the process of trying to meet and realize your own expectations, it is almost impossible not to become stressed.

Unreasonable expectations may also lead you to feel disappointed in yourself and others. This disappointment may then cause you to be in a low mood and unable to enjoy what is actually going well.

Moderating expectations is a great way of avoiding or minimizing this type of stress. Think about what happened during previous holidays – perhaps you needed a few days to transition from work mode to holiday mode. Perhaps there were family members who would not stop working or simply did not want to get into the holiday spirit.

Maybe your family has small children who are likely to argue about toys or get tired but refuse to sleep. They may have grown up a little, but having children around is just part of coming together with family. Try to appreciate the kids’ noise and idiosyncrasies as a part of your ‘perfect’ holidays.

Presents are another source of unreasonable expectations. If you love shopping for holiday gifts, chances are you put a great deal of time and effort into selecting those hard-to-find gifts for family members and friends that have it all. That is a kind and valid approach, but, in reality, it will not always be met at the same level.

The gift’s recipient may not be as impressed as you imagined. In addition, just because you take great care during gift shopping, others may not take the same level of care. It is worth bearing this in mind before becoming overly stressed over holiday gifts.

Stress Type 3 – Dietary Concerns

For many people, cooking and sharing holiday food is one of the great pleasures of the festive period. Others are managing complex dietary requirements and may feel apprehensive about navigating festive occasions. It is important to understand that your concerns are valid.

Food intolerances or allergies are becoming more common, so much so, that the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team has likened them to an epidemic. Over the last few decades, the number of Americans with food allergies has continuously grown. Research suggests that more than 10% of Americans are allergic to certain types of food. Almost 20% believe they are allergic to certain foods but have not been formally diagnosed.

For some people with food allergies, exposure to as little as a trace of that food can be life-threatening. Others suffer from symptoms like discomfort and bloating when they eat certain foods. Whilst those intolerances may not be life-threatening, they are serious enough to require dietary adjustments. Others simply have dietary preferences, such as vegetarian or vegan food. All these scenarios may lead to stress over dietary concerns.

If you are hosting a large family gathering, it is almost inevitable that you will have to accommodate dietary requirements. Adjusting traditional dishes can be stressful and add to your workload. However, put yourself in the shoes of those suffering from allergies and intolerances. They are likely to enter every festive event that includes food with a degree of trepidation and, in some cases, an epi-pen to deal with anaphylactic shock.

Managing dietary concerns requires a different approach, depending on whether you are at risk or hosting holiday celebrations. As a host, try to minimize meal preparation stress by finding out which allergies or dietary requirements you may need to accommodate. Make sure to differentiate between ‘must-do’ requirements and simple preferences.

Depending on the size of your holiday gathering, the results may be tricky to accommodate. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Many guests will be delighted to contribute a dish or two, especially if it means that it helps them lower their diet-related stress levels.

If you are suffering from food allergies and intolerances, it is normal to feel apprehensive or stressed about attending holiday events and meals. Make sure you notify the hosts of your requirements and check whether they will be able to accommodate your requests. If your requirements are complex or your food allergies are severe, consider offering to contribute a dish or bringing your own food. This is a great way to ensure that suitable food is available for you. Not only will this approach help mitigate your stress levels, but it will also support the events’ hosts.

Stress Type 4 – Maintaining Diet, Exercise, and Sleep Routines

Maintaining routines is critical for dealing with holiday mental health challenges. When you are trying to manage holiday stress, you are trying to prevent temporary feelings of stress from developing into a more permanent problem.

Practices such as diet, exercise, and sleeping patterns are only three examples of routines that can be hard to maintain during the holidays. With family visits and other social commitments disrupting your normal schedule, it is important to understand the significance of routines and make space for them.

For most of us, the weeks leading up to the holidays are peppered with evening events and social occasions. Many of those had to be canceled for two years because of the pandemic, but you are likely to receive more invitations this year. Of course, the receding of the pandemic is cause for celebration. However, celebrations have a tendency to wreak havoc with dietary, exercise, and sleep routines.

Navigating celebrations whilst maintaining routines will require some adjustment. Let us begin by looking at sleeping routines. Some holiday events are likely to run late and interfere with your usual sleep routine. The good news is that one or two nights of diverting from your normal pattern is unlikely to disrupt the entire routine. Try scheduling events carefully to avoid consecutive nights of lost sleep.

When you are attending evening events, avoid having caffeinated drinks or excessive amounts of alcohol. This will help you get the most out of the remaining hours of sleep. Just like going to bed late one night does not destroy your sleeping pattern, enjoying an indulgent meal once or twice will not ruin an otherwise healthy diet.

One way of enjoying rather than becoming stressed about holiday food is to choose small portions, for example. Inform hosts of your specific dietary requirements to avoid misunderstandings later or consider bringing a dish to an event to ensure your preferences will be catered for.

Diet often goes hand in hand with exercise. Maintaining an exercise routine is an excellent way of managing stress levels rather than adding to them. Think about easy ways of incorporating exercise into your holidays. You may not be able to get to the gym as much as you like, but how about making time for brisk walks instead? They are an excellent way of exercising and can tide you over to the time when you can get back to your routine.   

Stress Type 5 – Feelings of Sadness, Loneliness, or Loss

Nearly one in two Americans is experiencing some stress or anxiety around missing family members during the holidays. It does not matter whether you have lost a loved one recently or a long time ago, the idea of facing the holidays without them can trigger stress. The holiday season should be full of joy and excitement. But according to psychologists, it may cause powerful waves of grief for those dealing with a loss.

For some people, understanding the source of their emotions helps them rationalize and cope with them. If you have prepared for and celebrated the holidays with a spouse of several decades, it is normal to experience their loss especially keenly during this period. The holidays may bring back memories of happier times or joint experiences that can never be repeated. Fighting your grief rarely makes sense. Learning to recognize the signs of oncoming waves of grief and developing coping mechanisms often works better.

Loneliness is another factor that may trigger stress in the run-up to and during the holidays. Traditional ideas of holiday celebrations generally involve social gatherings. Most of us have been educated to think of the holidays as a time to spend with family or friends, even though not everyone has a family or an alternative support system.

The strong emphasis on a connection at this time of year can make loneliness more noticeable. People who are struggling with a lack of connection tend to experience their symptoms more strongly. If you are among those struggling with being alone or feeling disconnected, seeking support is important. Emotions like loneliness will indeed pass.

But psychologists know that long-term loneliness can cause permanent damage to a person’s physical and mental health. Loneliness may also cause you to develop habits and coping mechanisms that make it harder to build new connections. As a result, your own behaviors may make your loneliness worse.

How to Manage Holiday Stress

Stress does not have to be a necessary consequence of the holidays. If you know that you are likely to stress around this time of the year, try not to push the thought of the approaching holidays aside. Instead, take a proactive approach to this holiday season and plan ahead. Follow these holiday stress tips to minimize the build-up of negative feelings and make the most out of the time ahead.

1. Identify your Triggers

In the section above, we have described some of the most common types of holiday stress and their triggers. If you feel that none of those truly apply to you, but you can also feel your blood pressure increase as soon as you hear festive music, it is time to identify your triggers.

For some of us, receiving too many event invitations makes us feel stressed. Others bristle at the thought of having time off on their own and nothing planned to fill these hours and days. Without knowing why you start experiencing stress it is infinitely harder to develop effective coping mechanisms.

People who know what causes them to feel overwhelmed and stressed out have a better chance of avoiding or resolving the cause of their problems.

2. Make a Plan

Whether you feel overwhelmed by the number of social obligations ahead of you or you struggle to face days of loneliness ahead, it is essential to plan your time.

For those individuals who are getting ready to host family and friends, listing tasks that need to be completed and dishes that need to be prepared can be helpful. Having an overview of what needs to be done not only makes it easier to identify priorities. You will also be able to spot tasks you may be able to delegate. Plus, many people find it highly gratifying to strike things off their list as tasks are being completed. Another benefit of planning ahead is that you minimize the feeling of having forgotten something. Plus, you are giving your brain a break by not forcing it to remember dozens of to-dos.  

If you are dreading the holidays because of a sheer lack of plans, start filling your schedule. Most of us have a mental list of things we never get around to. Think of books you would like to read, places you have always wanted to visit, or knowledge you have always wanted to acquire. The holidays are the perfect time to catch up on things you do not normally have time for. By taking this approach, your calendar will soon be full.

3. Practice Saying No

The holidays are a time of giving and generosity, but that does not mean you cannot say no. If you find that invitations are piling up and you are spreading yourself too thinly across social events, start prioritizing which events you want or need to attend. Politely decline the other invitations.

You may have always hosted the entire family during the holidays, but traditions can change. If the idea of hosting an ever-growing group of people is becoming too stressful, consider asking a family member whether they would like to take over from you. If that is not possible, start inviting people to contribute to the dinner table or arrive earlier and help decorate.

Saying no has nothing to do with being impolite. Instead, it is a sign that you recognize your limitations and understand how to work within them.

4. Pay Tribute to Lost Family and Friends

Allow yourself to feel grief and loss. Feelings of grief will come in waves, often at unexpected times.

They become more manageable if you make time to honor and remember loved ones you may have lost. This is a good time to reflect on memories, and perhaps you want to surround yourself with pictures of those that cannot be there in person. You can honor lost relatives and friends even more by donating to their favorite charity on their memory or gathering friends to share stories of someone’s life.

Do not underestimate the emotions you may feel if your loved ones are far away and getting together is not an option. You may feel stressed at the thought of not having time together, and you may also experience grief. Try to think of ways that help you connect. Perhaps a meal shared via video call can help you feel closer to each other.

5. Put Yourself First

It is very easy to get caught up in organizing the best possible holidays for everyone else. But what about you? What do you need to do to minimize your holiday stress?

The answers to these questions can be more straightforward than you think. For many of us, putting ourselves first means ensuring we get a good night’s sleep and take a break when we feel overwhelmed. If you are getting ready to host the entire family, make sure you keep a space just for you. Ask others for help, go for a short walk, and remember you can only look after others if you are looking after yourself.

Spot the Signs of Holiday Depression & Anxiety

Some degree of holiday stress is completely normal. However, when stress is no longer temporary and becomes overwhelming, it may trigger other mental health problems. Two of the most common mental health conditions in the United States are depression and anxiety. Left untreated, holiday stress can trigger both.

How do you know if you are at risk of or suffering from holiday depression or anxiety? Anxiety and depression triggered by holiday stress have similar symptoms to the day-to-day versions of these conditions. They include physical and mental or behavioral health symptoms.  The main difference is that holiday depression and anxiety symptoms worsen as the holidays approach.

Physical symptoms of holiday anxiety and depression include:

  • Sleeping problems, including the inability to fall or stay asleep or a need for excessive sleep
  • Unexplained headaches and body aches 

Emotional and behavioral symptoms include:

  • Persistent low mood that worsens as the holidays approach
  • Excessive worry about holiday-related tasks such as preparing meals or organizing presents for the entire family
  • Overwhelming sadness or irritability

Experiencing these symptoms temporarily or every once in a while is normal. When they become near-permanent and start interfering with your daily life, it is time to look for help.

Holiday Stress and Mental Health

Holiday stress and overall holiday mental health are closely connected. If you allow holiday stress to overwhelm you, your body’s stress reaction may change. Normally, your brain would signal a temporary increase in producing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Once the challenge passes, their levels would return to normal. If your stress levels remain permanently high, they can have a detrimental effect on your health.

Chronic stress wears people down emotionally. If the cycle is not disrupted, your holiday stress can develop into full-blown depression. Like other mental health challenges, depression is treatable. However, the further a mental illness progresses, the harder treatment becomes. Preventing depression by managing holiday stress is preferable to having to treat the condition later.

Stress can cause your breathing patterns to change and induce rapid breathing. You breathe less efficiently because the muscles that normally support your breathing are tensed up and can no longer move freely. As a result, you may feel shortness of breath which can trigger anxiety. Everyone feels nervous or anxious occasionally, but severe anxiety can be life-limiting.

Holiday stress can exacerbate the symptoms of anyone suffering from a mental health condition. A survey by the National Alliance of Mentally Ill (NAMI) found that nearly two out of three of those suffering from mental illness felt worse over the holidays.

As a friend or a relative of someone dealing with mental health challenges, it is important to understand the effect the holidays can have on that person. Developing this awareness allows you to notice when symptoms arise. Plus, you can help your loved one manage their stress levels before they become hard to control.

If you are dealing with a mental health condition yourself, making time for yourself is crucial. It also helps to be aware of your triggers, especially if they are related to the holidays and mental health. Developing this deeper understanding of the connection between your condition and the time of year will help develop effective coping strategies.

Coping with Holiday Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety and stress do not need to ruin your holidays. Even if you have been suffering from holiday stress before, it is not too late to change things by identifying and putting into practice effective coping mechanisms.

Coping mechanisms can differ from person to person. Most include practical behavioral changes that help limit your exposure to triggers or stress or anxiety.

Winter may be a time that we associate less with outdoor exercise and more with staying sedentary indoors. However, even moderate exercise has been shown to be extremely beneficial in relieving stress and causing the brain to release endorphins. These endorphins are also referred to as ‘feel-good hormones,’ and they can help limit your stress response.

You do not need to become an athlete to benefit from regular exercise. As little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five times a week can improve your physical and emotional well-being.

Going for a 30-minute walk every day during the holidays can also be part of another coping strategy – making time for yourself. Granted, the holidays are a great time to connect or reconnect with family and friends, but that does not mean having to sacrifice all your time. Whilst some people are true ‘social animals’, others prefer their own company or smaller groups of people around them. Going for a walk is a great way of carving out some ‘me’ time even if your home is busy during the holidays.

Taking care of your diet is another great way of coping with holiday stress. This may sound strange initially. After all, the holidays are known as a time to indulge. Whilst there is nothing wrong with treating yourself from time to time, maintaining a healthy diet and limiting your alcohol intake have been shown to benefit overall mental health.

How do I Know if I Have Holiday Stress?

As we mentioned above, feeling stressed and anxious before a big event is normal. For many of us, hosting the entire family or attending numerous holiday-related gatherings does cause some stress. Identifying whether you suffer from holiday-related stress starts with becoming more aware and mindful of your stress.

Are you finding yourself becoming more stressed as the holidays approach? Do you dread the idea of having to live up to commitments you have made, and is the idea of another holiday party causing you to break out in a cold sweat? Those may be symptoms of holiday-related stress.

Recognizing the symptoms is the first step toward being able to cope with them. Once you understand that the proximity of the holidays is causing your stress levels to rise, you can start digging deeper. A deeper analysis can help clarify which aspect of the upcoming holidays stresses you the most.

Based on that you can start choosing and implementing potential coping strategies. You may be able to limit or completely remove triggers of stress. Alternatively, you can work toward behaviors that mitigate stress triggers and keep stress manageable.

To confirm whether you are suffering from holiday stress beyond doubt, it is best to seek a professional diagnosis. Mental health professionals, such as psychologists, have been trained to recognize your symptoms and ask targeted questions to help them understand your condition better. This allows them to distinguish between holiday stress and other types of stress. It also helps determine whether the stress you are experiencing is in danger of developing into another mental health condition.

The earlier you clarify what you are suffering from, the sooner you can start getting the support you need to help you enjoy the holiday period.

How does Therapy Help?

Psychotherapy or counseling is one of the most effective ways of dealing with holiday stress and other mental health conditions. It is a great alternative or adjunct to medication.

Following a professional diagnosis, therapy aims to find the root causes of your holiday stress. Depending on the severity of your mental health challenges, professionals may also prescribe a combination of medication and therapy.

Medication for mental health conditions treats the symptoms you are experiencing. This approach can be hugely beneficial if your symptoms have started interfering with your daily life. Whilst the medication controls the symptoms that are overwhelming you, the counselor or psychotherapist can get to work looking for causes.

In the case of holiday stress, the trigger may be obvious. But it is worth looking more thoroughly to identify underlying causes. Unresolved trauma may be causing you stress, or perhaps you believe your family and loved ones have unrealistic expectations of you as a host. It is also possible that you have unrealistic expectations of the holidays.

Unearthing these causes is the first step toward resolving them and managing their impact. Over the course of several counseling or therapy sessions, your mental health professional will work with you to develop effective coping strategies. The goal is to help you manage your stress levels throughout the holidays and beyond. You should be able to enjoy this special time of the year, whether you plan to spend the holidays as part of a large party or prefer your own company.

Stress counseling can have remarkable effects within just a few sessions. There may not be a set number of sessions that is appropriate to manage stress, but your counselor will be able to give you an idea.

One of the most important aspects of counseling is finding a mental health professional that you can relate to and trust. Accessing support does not need to be difficult with the support of a trusted partner. At TrueCare24, we have spent years building a strong, nationwide network of highly qualified and experienced mental health professionals.

This network gives you access to mental health professionals wherever and whenever you need them. Counseling does not need to be disruptive or add to your stress levels even further. Choosing online counseling sessions, for example, lets you connect to your counselor from your home or another private location. There is no need to travel long distances or be stuck in traffic, worried you may miss your slot. You simply ‘meet’ your counselor wherever you are.

For those who prefer in-person counseling, sessions can be arranged just as easily, and many therapists allow clients to combine online and in-person counseling. Online counseling is a great option if you need help quickly managing your mental health during the holidays. This approach allows you to access the support you need without needing to change your holiday plans.

Therapists will work with you to identify the most effective coping strategies to fit your circumstances. They will also help you overcome challenges as they arise. The benefit of integrating coping mechanisms into your life is that they will help you deal with stress after the holidays, too.

To learn more about how you can manage stress during this holiday season, contact our team today.

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