In Depth

Mental Health

Holiday stress

Coping tips

Last Updated December 20, 2006

The holidays are a time to enjoy yourself and escape life's hectic pace, but the pressure to spend money on the right gifts, socialize and find the time to be with people you may not see the rest of the year can add up.

Nearly 77 per cent of people with a diagnosis of anxiety or depression said they experience a return or worsening of their symptoms over the holidays, according to a poll done on behalf of the Canadian Mental Health Association and Desjardins Financial Security. Those surveyed cited extra social pressure, financial stress, raised holiday expectations, and an increased feeling of loneliness as stressors.

People should look for ways to reduce holiday stress if they are feeling irritable, losing sleep, experiencing unexpected weight changes, feeling tense with muscle aches or headaches, and feeling overwhelmed, the association said.

Many psychologists point to raised expectations as part of the problem, as people feel compelled to get together with family thinking they can recreate a postcard-perfect experience.

Don't expect that the holidays will be weeks of unending happiness, but a time that will have its ups and downs like the rest of the year. Everyone will not look or behave like the fictional people on television or in magazines. Homes will not look perfect.

"This is particularly important with families with young children," said Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. "Changes in normal routine may make them feel 'off.' They may hate their dress-up clothes that grandma sent, and are at their limits by the time everyone sits down to eat. It would be better to have a low-key holiday that everyone enjoys."

Families visiting grandma or grandpa may first notice changes in older family members who are coping with depression. They may not, for example, be taking care of themselves or their home the same way, said Dr. Helen Kales, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan Depression Centre.

Treating older people to a nice dinner or a present may help them feel less blue, in the short term, Kales suggested. If the depression symptoms continue for weeks, or months, then counselling and medication may be the answer.

Overall, the solution to holiday stress is to pare down expectations and plan, said John Service, a psychologist and executive director of the Canadian Psychological Association.

"Do you really need to buy the newest Xbox or that expensive sweater to make someone love you?" asked Anna Baranowsky, a psychologist and director of the Traumatology Institute in Toronto.

"Isn't love about connection rather than money? If you don't receive the ultimate gift from a certain person then reflect on what the relationship is like every day of the year instead."

Also, decide how you want to deal with a difficult uncle and remember not to take what others say personally, she said. Seeking out neutral and supportive people to ask for support may also help.

Since a bad mood can poison the environment and spiral out of control, it is important to take responsibility for our own mood rather than blame others, Baranowsky said.


Other tips from the Canadian Mental Health Association include:

Set your priorities. Before too many activities overwhelm you, it�s important to decide which traditions are most important and eliminate unnecessary activities. For example, if you usually become overwhelmed by a flurry of baking, shopping, sending cards, visiting relatives and other activities that leave you exhausted, you may want to pick your favourite activities and really enjoy them, and skip the rest.

Ask for help. Have a "family meeting" and make a commitment to share tasks. Rather than have one person cooking the whole meal, have family and friends bring a dish. Children can help with gift-wrapping, decorating, baking or addressing cards. Try to focus on doing what's really important to you and your family.

Beware of overindulgence. Alcohol is a depressant so try to keep consumption to a minimum. Too much food can make you feel lethargic, tired and even less able to keep up a busy pace.

Relax. Breathe. Enjoy! This sounds so simple, but sometimes we forget to take deep breaths and give our bodies the oxygen we need. Remember to take time to do things you enjoy, like exercising, listening to music or meditation, Each will serve as much-needed breaks during the hectic weeks of the holidays.

Stay within budget. Finances are a great stressor, so set a budget and stick with it. A call, a visit or a note to tell someone how important he or she is to you can be as touching and often more meaningful than a gift. Families may request that money that would have been spent on gifts go towards a charity.

Remember what the holiday season means to you. While holiday advertising creates a picture that the holidays are about shiny new toys and gift giving, remember that this season is really about sharing and time spent with loved ones. Develop your own meaningful family traditions. Encourage children to make gifts or cards for friends and relatives so the focus is on giving rather than receiving.

Learn about others. Attend diverse cultural events with family and friends. Help out at a local food bank or donate clothing and toys to families in need so that they can enjoy a happy holiday season. It�s a good feeling to give to others. Include others. If you have few family members or close friends nearby, reach out to neighbours, patients in nursing homes, homeless people, or those who have lost their jobs. Find ways to spend the holidays with other people. If you're part of a family gathering, invite someone you know is alone to your gathering.

Put fun, humour, affection and "break time" into your holidays. Fun or silly activities, games or movies that make you laugh, hugs, playing with pets, and quiet time alone or with a partner are all good ways to reduce stress.

Get into the light. Research suggests that elevated depression around this time of year can have a lot to do with the weather, especially lack of daylight and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So soak up the sun when you can. If your dampened mood persists for weeks into the New Year, consider a visit to your physician or mental health professional.

MD Analytics conducted the mental health poll over the internet in November. The results are considered accurate to within five percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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