More Than Just Joy and Laughter, Tips For Navigating The Hard Parts Of The Holidays: Anxiety, Stress, Loneliness, and Disappointment


By Hackensack Meridian Health

(Newswise)–On TV, the rituals of the holidays–shopping, decorating, cooking and gathering with family–are carried out with cheer. Relationships and festivities are filled with love and warmth. Even Ebenezer Scrooge ends up living the idyllic holiday experience, spreading joy and basking in the magical spirit of the season.

It may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the most stressful. All through December, there is a lot to plan, a lot of financial stress with holiday shopping and gift giving, and a lot of social interactions between family, friends and coworkers. A widely cited Healthline survey in 2015 showed that more than 60 percent of respondents–cutting across all age groups–reported feeling stressed because of the holidays.

From struggling with a death that means an empty seat at the table, or loneliness and financial strains to anxiety and sometimes awkward family gatherings, there are many reasons the holiday season may not bring joy to some people. The very busy holiday season can also cause undue stress, and unrealistic expectations to have the picture perfect “Hallmark” celebration.

Hackensack Meridian Health mental experts explain the stress and how to manage and minimize its effects on your mental health.

Dr. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center offers these tips to navigate the holiday season and all the added presents it provides like stress, depression and anxiety.

  • Stay connected.  Isolated individuals have shorter life expectancies and greater illness risks.  The holiday season is a time when people get together, but you may not be in the mood for all the festivities, so pick and choose which ones you accept.  Sometimes we feel obligated to see people who we don’t care for, and it’s best to avoid people who bring us down.
  • Talk about your feelingsShare both your positive and negative feelings with people you trust.  Just because all the ads show everyone in a great mood during the holidays, that doesn’t mean that your usual worries and concerns will simply disappear.  Talking about them will not only relieve your burden, but will likely relieve the burden of your friends and family members who will be more inclined to share their own concerns with you.
  • Be realistic about holiday expectationsThe commercialism of the holidays makes some people feel that if they are not having a great time then something is wrong with them. If we set our expectations too high, we are often disappointed.  Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to have a great time and you may find that your experience pleasantly exceeds your expectations.
  • Eat, drink and party in moderationIt’s great to celebrate, but too much of a good time can bring us down.  Overeating can make us feel lethargic and guilty.  Alcohol in moderation can loosen inhibitions and enhance a celebration, but too much alcohol will lead to physical and mental symptoms that worsen mood.

Palisades Medical Center social worker Jenny Lozano-Rivera, who manages Emergency Department mental health services, advises lowering expectations and drawing boundaries. Lozano-Rivera advises against aiming for a Hallmark-movie holiday experience, and looking at often overlooked blessings–having loved ones (whether it’s family or good friends), if you’re in relatively good health, a job or hobbies you enjoy, some time off during the season–with appreciation.

She also advises setting boundaries, since holiday stress in great part stems from setting out to do too much (which can lead to disappointment, exhaustion and debt). Some steps she recommends are:

  • Creating a holiday budget and sticking to it. With inflation so high, many people feel more financially strapped these days, and gifts and food cost more. Consider proposing to adult friends and relatives with whom you usually exchange gifts that this year anyone over 18, for example, will take part in a Secret Santa drawing. That way, while younger kids will still get gifts from everyone, adults will only have one gift to buy for another adult in that circle.
  • Delegate duties for gatherings if you’re hosting. Ask everyone to bring a dish, that helps keep down the host’s costs as well as workload and stress. For those who can afford it, consider having the holiday meal catered.
  • Say no. If hosting is too stressful, don’t do it. If you don’t have the time, funds, or physical ability to take on the responsibility of preparing for guests, let someone else host.

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