MHHH Support Group: How to Survive the Holidays

Holiday Expectations and Stress
Try To Pace Yourself at This Time of Year

The holiday season is a joyful time for many people, but also a time that brings an enormous amount of stress for some, especially those with depression.  Stress is an emotionally and physically disturbing condition you may have in response to certain life events.  In this case it includes the change in daily routine and overload of responsibilities that are common during the holidays.

Holiday stress begins with a “should” list that is bound to get anyone into trouble.  I “should” do this or go to that function or get that gift.  I “should” prepare a holiday feast for my family or make a gift like Martha Stewart!  Beware of the word “should.”  We all have a desire to please others by making the holiday’s picture-card perfect, but that is not reality.  You may tend to take on an overload of responsibilities and then feel guilty if you cannot live up to that self-imposed standard.  Or when depressed, you may not feel like doing any of it and feel guilty later for ignoring your loved ones. 

When your mood and energy levels are down, it is often difficult to muster the effort to participate in the activities of the season, especially since you may have no interest in doing so.  That’s part of the illness.  But at the same time you may feel pressure to participate, either from within or from family members.  Pressure to put on a cheery disposition around others.  Pressure to prepare an elaborate holiday meal for your family.  Pressure to attend the many holiday functions at work/school or with friends or family members.  Do what you can realistically do this year.  Take a step back and learn to say “no” if necessary during this time so as not to overcommit yourself.

Expectations are tricky.  At the holiday time they often appear as an artificial set of standards that you impose upon yourself, based upon some unreachable ideal in a magazine, on television or what your great-grandmother was said to have done.  Trying to reach these unrealistic expectations will only bring you disappointment and more stress, not pleasure.  Instead, think about where you are with your depression, and what you can realistically do now for yourself and your family.  Set out small goals for your holiday season, ones that are attainable.  Break each one down into small steps. 

Keep it all very simple and you and others will enjoy it more.

Another source of stress is an upset in one’s daily routine that happens by attending holiday-related social functions, shopping in crowded malls or making holiday-related meals and gifts for loved ones.  This can take up quite a bit of time and be more unsettling than you realize.   When you are suffering from depression or bipolar depression, dealing with such daily changes can be much more difficult.  It’s thought that small changes in one’s daily routine challenges the body’s ability to maintain stability, and that those with mood disorders have more difficult time adapting to these changes in routine.

A third source of stress is getting together with distant family members or old friends with whom you may have very little in common any more.  You may feel it as an obligation and not a joy of the season, and may dread the anticipated unpleasant interaction but do it for the sake of “family.”  When depressed, you may choose instead to politely bow out of these functions.  If that isn’t possible, try to limit your time with them.

So, when holiday stress arrives anyway - now what do you do?  There are ways that you can manage it and lessen the effect of the stressful events. 

These are called coping techniques.  First, try to limit your exposure to any one stressful activity, event or person(s).  Maintain a regular schedule of daily activities, including diet/nutrition, sleep, exercise, and self-care.  Enjoy the holiday food but don’t over-eat or drink and be sorry later.  Try to prioritize your responsibilities and activities and don’t overschedule, if possible.  Break down large tasks into smaller steps.  Keep a calendar and make lists of what you have to do.  Use problem solving strategies.  Take care of yourself and try relaxation and self-soothing techniques regularly.  Use humor to distract your mind – a funny book or movie often works wonders at these times.  Try mindfulness meditation to stay focused on the moment.  All of these are explained in my book Managing Your Depression: What you can do to feel better.

A version of this article was previously posted on my website

Holiday Stress and the Brain

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” So says a classic song of the holiday season. But is it? The end-of-year holidays are certainly a happy time for most of us, but the stress of the season puts many of us on such an edge that we wish it would all just go away.

The holidays are filled with both joy and stress,” says Ellen Braaten, PhD, an HMS associate professor of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate director of its Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

This dichotomy is reflected in the findings of a 2015 survey conducted by Healthline, a consumer health information site based in San Francisco, Calif. Sixty-two percent of respondents described their stress level as “very or somewhat” elevated during the holidays, while only 10 percent reported no stress during the season. Among the holiday stressors listed by respondents were the financial demands of the season, negotiating the interpersonal dynamics of family, and maintaining personal health habits such as an exercise regimen.

Readying ourselves to face these stresses requires what Braaten and other professionals refer to as shifting set, that is, updating or shifting cognitive strategies to respond to the changes in our environment. “The tough part,” says Braaten, “is that shifting set, which can be hard for us at any point in the year, is particularly pervasive at the holidays.” For such updates to be successful, one must have the cognitive flexibility to shift attention between one task and another and to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances.

Shifting set is a type of executive functioning, a set of mental skills that helps us get things done. These skills include managing time, being attentive, switching focus, planning and organizing, and remembering details. Many of us perform these activities daily but, according to Braaten, they are behaviors that are in even greater demand during the holiday season.

Because the holiday season often requires us to keep track of and pay attention to a greater number of responsibilities than usual, the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive. Over time, a high level of demand can decrease memory, halt production of new brain cells, and cause existing brain cells to die. Fortunately, holiday stress is a special kind of stress: an acute reaction to an immediate threat. This sort of demand, Braaten says, is something we are more capable of dealing with. “Once the holidays are over,” she says, “we have ways of relaxing. The stress of the season goes away.”

Braaten says people who feel stressed during the holidays should evaluate how they spend their time, decide what they want the holidays to mean to them, and keep their expectations for the season realistic. “The holidays are just another time of year,” notes Braaten, “certainly something to mark, but not the end-all, be-all.”

Resource/content: Scott Edwards is a freelance science writer based in Massachusetts.

Holiday Stress Poll

Holiday Stress Poll


Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression:

When stress is at its peak, it's hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

·         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.

·         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.

·         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.

·         Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of 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.

·         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.
  • Start a family gift exchange.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt.

    Try these suggestions:

  • Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Incorporate regular physical activity into each day.
  •  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. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

    Some options may include:

  • Taking a walk at night and stargazing.
  •  Listening to soothing music.
  • Getting a massage.
  • Reading a book.
  •  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.