While the holiday season is a highly anticipated time of year, for many Americans that anticipation can also come with heightened stress and strain on one’s mental health. In one study, 38% of survey respondents said their stress increases over the holidays. This effect has an even higher impact on women, who are more likely to take on hosting and event planning responsibilities (13% more women than men reported feeling heightened holiday stress).
Why are so many Americans stressed during the holiday season, and what can you do to better protect your mental health during what should be a joyous time of year?
The holidays fall at a time of year that’s already difficult for our bodies, as we adjust to shorter days, longer nights, and less sunlight. These changes can exacerbate existing holiday stress, and lead to greater mental health struggles for those with depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common experience that for many, begins as the weather starts to change and often lasts into the spring.
Light therapy is one of the most common treatments for SAD, and is easy to implement into your day-to-day life. Daily exposure to artificial sunlight can ease some of the symptoms of SAD, especially in conjunction with other treatments, like talk therapy.
One of the greatest sources of stress over the holidays comes from the work sphere. As the demands of day-to-day life increase during the holiday season, so do the demands of work. 38% of Americans reported stress from not being able to get enough time off of work to enjoy time with friends and family, while 34% feared work creeping into their holiday celebrations.
When we feel as if we’re being pulled in too many directions at once, we’re more likely to over-eat, drink alcohol, or engage in sedentary activities as stress relievers. In moderation, these activities are functional, even expected during the holiday season; but too much can become an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Setting boundaries between work and life is a great first step to mitigating stress. Turning off work phones and work email at home can prevent the demands of work from seeping into home life and affecting quality family time. Establishing boundaries with managers and coworkers may help ease holiday stress and create healthy habits year-round.
Effect on Children
The holiday stress that parents feel can also affect their children. A survey by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that parents who experience greater stress during the holidays are more likely to believe that this heightened stress level negatively affects their child’s enjoyment of the season. For parents, managing their stress and positive mental health is important to the well-being of their children during the holiday season.
Parents are also more likely to relax or waive their rules for screen time, bedtime, and junk food over the holidays as children are home from school, and the stressors of day-to-day life pile up. But setting manageable boundaries for children over the holidays is important for everyone’s physical and mental health, and can help children ease back into school in the new year.
High expectations for the holidays—both for parents and children—can also have a negative impact on a child’s holiday experience. Setting realistic expectations for the season’s celebrations, and refocusing the meaning of the holidays on togetherness, can help parents and children better enjoy their time together.
Family Estrangement and Grief
The holidays are often seen as a time to gather with family and celebrate the season, but this expectation can often bring complex and difficult feelings. For those estranged from family members, or grieving the loss of a loved one, feelings of loss and loneliness are common. Sadness can take the front seat as we feel pressured to spend time with family, and remember past holiday seasons.
For those experiencing estrangement and grief, acknowledging your sadness is a powerful first step toward managing your mental health over the holidays. It’s normal to feel sad after losing someone, and it’s important to give yourself the space to grieve that loss.
Seek support during this difficult time, whether it’s from friends, family, or a mental health practitioner. Find ways to occupy yourself during times that would typically be spent with family. Use healthy coping mechanisms and come up with a list of interesting activities during the holiday season that can distract you.
If you would like to talk with someone, our therapists are available online—talk with a licensed counselor from the comfort of your home.
For those dealing with estrangement over the holidays, affirmations—whether from yourself, or those close to you—can help remind you that you’re worthy of love outside of estranged family members. If you’re feeling pressured to attend a holiday event that you’re uncertain or trepidatious about, remember that holiday celebrations are not obligatory. It’s okay to say “no.”
Every year does come to an end eventually, and you can make it through. Seek out healthy coping mechanisms, find activities to help distract you, and spend quality time with the people who love you