Coping with Holiday Stress and Anxiety
The tree is aglow with the presents all wrapped, the holiday baking is done, and Aunt Daisy has promised to be on her best behaviour. Your client is ready for Christmas — or maybe not. As the siren call of “happy holidays” beckons, many people are thrilled to come to the end of the year. They are giddy with excitement at the thought of time off work, a chance to relax, and for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the golden days of summer and all the delights that it holds. But for some — and if you have depressed clients, they are probably in this group — the extra stress of the holidays threatens to derail an often fragile mood and sense of self. If you suspect this is the case for anyone you are working with (or even friends or rellies you care about), you can help them prepare for a few weeks of dizzying demands, excessive expectations, and relentless relatives. This article looks at how.
Holiday reality check: not all mistletoe and champagne
Images of love, joy, and peace may be permeating the media, but for many the outlook is not cheerful at all. Relationships Australia’s December 2016 online survey found that Christmas is considered one of the six most stressful life events, along with divorce, moving house, and changing jobs. A US survey found that 45% of Americans dread the festive season. Many go into serious overdrive to get crucial work projects done. Others fall prey to the myriad food and drink temptations which, on top of the difficulty of maintaining other healthful habits such as exercise, can take people off centre. Beyond that, people tend to hope that this year’s family reunion will be pleasant, yet they may have strong memories of get-togethers past which were anything but, and they dread seeing the same branch of the family again. Some may have no family at all to go to, as the spectre of loneliness looms large. And there is the ever-present reminder for some of terrible losses they sustained at this time of year in the past: the death of a loved one, a divorce, or other sad event. Thus, no matter what the reason for the client’s trepidation as Christmas careens around the corner, we can urge people to deal with several basic risk factors for holiday depression.
Now, really, when was your client’s family ever like it’s depicted in old television sitcoms, or for that matter, in the feel-good holiday movies? One mental health expert claims that at least 85% of American families are dysfunctional; Australian and New Zealand families may not be far behind that estimate. If your client acknowledges that Uncle Jack always gets drunk and gropes all his nieces or the client’s brother picks an argument no matter what, how likely are those behavioural habits to change just because your client would like a perfect Christmas? Having high expectations may only set people up for disappointment, deepening depression for those already afflicted with mood issues. And it’s no good forcing people to “be cheerful” when the atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The remedy: more realistic expectations and gratitude
Work with your client to establish more realistic expectations, and also boundaries: “This is within my control”; this is not”. What your client can have some control over is their reaction to events. Perhaps they can plan ahead of time with you how to manage likely “bad behaviours”, such as drunkenness, hostile, aggressive remarks (or passive-aggressive ones), and the ever-present possibility that one or more individuals will be rejecting or critical. External events, too, may not be what the client expected, as restaurants may disappoint, weather can interrupt travel plans, and the perfect beach holiday room with a view can turn out to be dark and dingy with only a sliver of sea to see. It might be hard, but the client can practice one of the best antidotes to depression: being grateful for the many good things that are still in his or her life.
Increased pressure: When doing too much still isn’t enough
A devout and giving woman who loved the spiritual reason for Christmas once complained that she couldn’t wait until the 26th of December, and no wonder why. She knocked herself out every year sewing multiple outfits for each of her five daughters, doing endless holiday cleaning and baking, and insisting on extensive holiday decorating: all this apart from a killer holiday schedule of socialising (and driving kids to their events). Is all that really necessary, you can ask? December can be about focusing on what is important, and choosing just what can be managed without undue stress. Explore these possibilities with your overdoing client.
Perfectionism: Not letting go of the small stuff
Sure, it would be great if absolutely all the housecleaning were done by the time your client’s critical mother and father arrive, but if the windows are still a bit grubby or there are weeds in the garden, does it really matter? Maybe you could even coach the client to say something like, “I knew I couldn’t get it all done, so I did what I could reasonably do, figuring that to have energy for you all would be more important than a perfectly decorated house” (or their version of an “I’m not perfect, but I care for you” statement — with no apologies).
Pre-existing mood issues
This last risk factor needs to be identified for the danger that it is. People who are already depressed may have hopes that they will be happier during the holidays, but often the extra demands and disappointments mean that any low mood is exacerbated. It is crucial to plan with your client how he or she will manage any depression or anxiety as it begins to manifest. Review the client’s current regimen for management and collaboratively look ahead to what further measures may be necessary on a temporary basis, just to get through the holidays. In this regard, we can ask you: how would you feel about fielding short calls from some clients over the holidays to help them re-set their mood indicator? You need to have boundaries and time off, too, but this could make all the difference.
Taking control: People, parties, presents
We can divide many of the practical strategies into those that help with the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects (people), situational factors (parties), or the vexed question of if, or how much, to give people.
Ask for help
Women probably bear the brunt of holiday preparations, as they are traditionally more involved with things like cooking, cleaning, decorating, and even gift buying. Women are also more prone to depression than men, so it stands to reason that, for female clients, particularly, learning to ask for help is a great skill to have. Children often want to participate (who cares if there are four blue baubles in one spot on the tree?) and can be recruited for many of the tasks, as can partners. The key is to be specific in what the client is requesting so that those helping out can be successful in their aid effort.
Learn to say “no” to some things so that healthy habits can still get a “yes”
As we noted above, the healthy habits most of us strive to develop can take a real beating when the pressure is on. Exercise is still important, as are spiritual practices such as meditation and relaxation: no matter how many Christmas functions are happening; your client deserves to have time for the healthy bits! This may mean, though, that the client learns to say “no” to some things, be they less interesting/important parties, requests for help to causes that are not primary for the client, or even saying no to or deferring requested overtime work, if it isn’t time-critical. Meanwhile, remind the client of the importance of maintaining good sleep hygiene, and possibly eating (healthily) before some social events in order to prevent eating too much of the “bad” stuff at the event. And in this category, breathe! Remind your stressed-out client of the value of even 20 or 30 minutes of taking that breather — or rather, that deep breather — to re-centre, refresh, and re-gear. Soothing music or a walk in nature, time with an uplifting book, or a massage can all help the client to unwind before going back into the holiday fray.
Deal with loneliness/grief/estrangement
Has your client been deprived of some of the cherished people in their life? A rewarding antidote to many of these circumstances is to reach out: to friends that are available or as a volunteer making gift basket runs or serving up the Christmas lunch at the charity. Or perhaps the client is a member of a religious or civic organisation and would have some possibilities for connecting there? The important thing is to find another human being with which to share their humanness. One widowed woman whose children couldn’t come for the holidays filled a champagne flute full of her favourite juice and walked across the street to a bench overlooking the ocean. She sat serene and peaceful, attracting many people walking along the nearby path to have conversations with her.
Bitter, sad, or resentful feelings arising from a recent divorce need to be acknowledged; “dumping” them into a journal — and then carrying on with the reach-out activities — could be effective.
Yes, it’s important to get to some of the events — certainly as part of reaching out for those who would otherwise be lonely — but there are a couple of caveats here for the client:
- Don’t overbook! Especially for introverts and/or sensitive personalities, a completely-booked-up diary can be frightening — and exhausting to just look at! In the interest of not doing too much, some events may need to be sent “regrets” to, or alternatively, the client may wish to let some hosts know that, because of clashing functions, the client will just be “popping in” for a few minutes/hours, but not staying all evening.
- Don’t be the last man standing. Really, is it necessary to be the last one to leave?
- Re-evaluate the traditions: they’re wonderful to have, but if longstanding ones no longer work for clients, they can be encouraged to gently let them go, starting new and more appropriate ones for their current lifestyle.
We have often wondered if this very old tradition needs to be re-imagined to reflect a more workable, contemporary approach to giving, and to relationships. You can challenge the client:
- Why are they buying a gift? If it’s because they think they should, does the issue need a re-think?
- Does the client dread the shopping because of putting pressure on him/herself to find the perfect gift? Guess what: it may not exist! Gift certificates work a treat.
- Are financial pressures reducing the fun of shopping and giving? Deciding on a budget ahead of time and sticking to it will help alleviate anxiety about overspending. The client might need assertiveness practice to be able to say to potential recipients, “I care about you, and I also can’t afford the ____ you wanted.”
- Shopping ahead of time for the things the client does buy — or buying online — can reduce a lot of the last-minute stress as shops tend to run out of things, and the queues on the 24th of December seem two kilometres long.
- What about giving to a charity in the person’s name? If the client knows what causes are dear to the recipient’s heart, a compatible charity can be targeted: a conservation one, say, for an animal-lover worried about endangered species, or Save the Children for someone who prioritises child concerns.
The sleigh bells may be ringing, the tree lights blinking, and the eggnog flowing, but for all its brightness and glamour, the Christmas holidays are a tough season to get through. With a bit of preparation, planning and reframing, however, your clients — even the depressed ones — can emerge in January happier, stronger, and more able to live the sublime qualities of love, peace, and joy that were the original intention of the celebration.
- Gregoire, C. (2017). Why we get depressed at the holidays, and how to deal. Huffington Post Australia. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
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- Jaworksi, M. (2018). Holiday depression: How to beat the holiday blues. Psycom. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Lancer, D. (2016). Understanding & coping with the Christmas blues. Psych Central. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Mayo Clinic staff. (2017). Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Moore, S. (n.d.). How to deal when the holidays aren’t exactly happy. Greatist. Retrieved on 4 December, 2018, from: Website.
- Robshaw, L. (2018). Stay sane this silly season. My Weekly Preview: Issue 529, December 7, 2018.