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10 Tips for Coping with Holiday Stress and Depression

Posted Dec 20 2010 12:00am
Depressed.  Photo: public domain

Confrontive dad arrives for the holidays
A friend told me yesterday about his parents arriving at his home for the holidays. His wife was taking a shower when the parents arrived. His father said, "Where's your wife? She should be downstairs to greet us. I think that shows a lack of respect."  My friend, stressed by the arrival of his parents with their usual expectations, as well as the presence of his sister's family and a passel of kids, responded defensively. "Well, Pop," he said, "this is my house.  If you don't like the way we do things here, you can just leave."

So the family holiday was off to a roaring start. My friend felt bad about his response to his dad, but really, dad started it by arriving with expectations, and by stating them in such a critical manner.

Christmas is marketed as a time of cheer, presents, and family togetherness, but whether you're with your family or not, Christmas is actually a time of stress for most of us, and a depressing time for some.

What causes the stress and depression? According to the Mayo Clinic, these three holiday triggers can lead to a meltdown.  Being aware of these triggers in advance can help you take care of yourself.

Recognize Holiday Triggers
  • Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you're thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.
  • Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.
  • Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.
What to do?
So what can you do if find yourself  stressed out, behaving badly, exhausted, depressed?  The Mayo Clinic offers the following 10 guidelines for healthy self-caring.

10 Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress and Depression
  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
  4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That'll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  8. Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Where did my friend and his quarrelsome dad go wrong?
As I read the lists above, I was wondering which "Trigger" and which "Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress..." relate to the interaction between my friend and his dad.

The relevant trigger was the first one, "Relationships." That was easy.

The relevant "Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress..." was #4, "Set Aside Differences".  It says "Try to accept family members... even if they don't live up to all your expectations."  Dad started the harsh exchange by saying the wife should greet them upon arrival, regardless of her need to take a shower. I imagine this particular Dad may often state expectations, and may often state disappointment or even resentment when they're not met.  Perhaps he could give it a rest on holidays.

It's understandable that Son would be annoyed by such a statement, that his wife's absence is disrespectful. She'd probably been working all day getting ready for the guests. But, Son could react in other ways. He could say nothing and leave the room; go call a friend to vent. Or he could say "Dad, that hurts my feelings. Laurie's been working really hard to get ready for you." Or "I'm sorry you feel that way." Silence and a short walk around the yard might be the best choice. That leaves Dad no opportunity to give another punch.

Knowing that family conflict is likely over the holidays might help Son choose an option other than suggesting that his dad leave.

Keep expectations low, acceptance high
Keeping all the above triggers and tips in mind might help each of us to "keep expectations low, acceptance high" this holiday season.  I also need to set limits on the outflow of money, and take extra steps to make sure I don't get emotionally and physically depleted. Just another week or two and it'll all be over!

Key words: holiday stress Christmas stress Christmas depression tips for coping with holiday stress and depression mayo clinic


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