Psychologist and anxiety expert explains main drivers of holiday stress & healthy ways to cope
By Molly Gluck
The holidays are supposedly the most wonderful time of the year, right? While spending time and celebrating with family, friends, and coworkers around the holiday season can bring happiness and joy, for many it can also bring unwanted stress.
We spoke with Donna Pincus, Ph.D., anxiety expert, professor, and researcher at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders about common holiday stressors and healthy ways to cope. Read the Q&A below to learn more about what we can do to have a healthier, happier holiday season and beyond.
According to a poll from Verywell Mind, more than 80% of us find the holiday season to be ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ stressful. What are some of the main drivers of holiday stress?
Even happy occasions can bring on some stress, and these feelings are very natural. There is typically a range of reactions that people can have when they are experiencing stress. Some may feel extremely busy but still able to cope well with the additional holiday activity and daily routines, whereas others might feel more interfering or distressing symptoms such as intense sadness, loneliness, or overwhelming feelings of anxiety or worry.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to holiday stress, and not everyone finds the same things to be stressful. Many people report that financial pressures increase significantly during the holidays, when the expectation of spending money on gifts could cause debt and significant financial strain. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for some people to report experiencing feelings of loneliness around the holidays, and these feelings can be especially difficult for those who do not have a strong social support network to help them cope.
Feelings of grief from loss of a loved one can be amplified as well during this time when there is a focus on spending time with family and friends. Although spending time with extended family can be replenishing for some people, many others describe feeling stressed by negative family interactions over the holidays. While some report feeling stressed about prolonged visits with extended family, others may feel stressed by not being able to meet family members’ expectations for visits. Whether engaging in extensive preparations at home or traveling to visit others, any activity has the potential to be both happy and somewhat stressful, depending on our perception and our coping resources. It is also quite normal for these feelings to co-occur.
It is important to note that not all stress is negative — sometimes feelings of stress can also be similar to feelings of excitement, depending on how much control we have over a situation. Some people actually feel their mood is improved when they are engaged in activities and busy with things to do. However, when feelings of stress surpass one’s perception of their ability to cope, people can begin to feel anxious, depressed or overwhelmed. While there are many sources of stress during the holidays, it is also important to remember that many people experience stressful feelings, and that there are a number of healthy ways to cope with stress that can help people feel more in control and relaxed.
What are the negative mental and physical health implications of holiday stress?
There can be numerous negative mental and physical health implications when levels of stress surpass our ability to cope. Physically, some people report feeling exhausted, and as a result, their sleep patterns might become disrupted. Some find it more difficult to sleep when worries mount, whereas others feel increased drive to sleep. When stress levels increase, our immune system functioning can become compromised, making people more vulnerable to getting sick. While it is natural to look forward to indulging in eating special treats over the holidays, consistent overeating can also have negative health implications, including increasing risk for cardiovascular problems. Psychologically, there are extensive literatures from numerous fields showing the effects of negative emotions on physical health. For example, feeling a loss of control and an inability to cope can increase feelings of anxiety or sadness, and can in turn deplete our immune system functioning. Thus, the more we can improve our ability to regulate our emotions and decrease stress levels, the more physically and emotionally healthy we will be — not only during the holidays, but year-round.
Do people feel it is difficult to talk about anxiety and depression during the holidays?
Many people report that they feel reluctant to talk about anxiety and depression throughout the year, and these fears can be amplified even more during the holidays, when people might feel more of a pressure to feel “joyous” and “full of cheer.” There have been numerous efforts on many fronts to provide information to help break down this stigma so that people feel more comfortable seeking help when they need it. Many national associations have informational websites to help disseminate accurate information about stress and other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression to the public to help break down mental health stigmas, such as the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and national and regional psychological associations.
What are common ways that people try to deal with holiday stress and anxiety that can actually make it worse?
Engaging in unhealthy habits and behaviors that might temporarily relieve feelings of stress can inadvertently have negative effects. For example, drinking too much or taking drugs to “numb out” feelings of stress or anxiety, consistently overeating, or withdrawing and isolating oneself to avoid interacting with others are all examples of behaviors that could inadvertently increase anxiety, sadness and other problems. Furthermore, trying to fit too many activities into the holiday season can have negative repercussions on sleep and in turn could make it more difficult for people to manage negative emotions and cope with stress. It can be helpful to balance downtime and social activities, and seek out support from others rather than avoiding negative feelings.
What habits and strategies do you recommend for coping with holiday stress and mental health conditions in a positive, manageable, and healthy way?
Although having some stress in life and around the holidays may be unavoidable, there are a number of strategies that have been shown to have positive effects on our well-being. These strategies can be helpful throughout the year, not just around the holidays. It is important to regularly practice techniques for reducing stress so that you know how to use them effectively, and so stress does not become chronic and interfering in life. At high levels, stress can impact the brain — and increase our risk for various physical and emotional disorders. However, the following coping skills can help decrease stress, increase feelings of control, and improve our ability to cope with negative emotions.
Among the most important recommendations, regular exercise has been shown to improve physical health, reduce risk for various diseases, decrease stress, improve cognitive functioning and promote overall well-being. Try to keep up exercise routines as a break and good stress reliever during the holidays.
There are vast literatures indicating the positive effects of social support on both physical and psychological health outcomes. Thus, throughout the year, focus time on developing good friendships and meaningful connections with others through work, your neighborhood, your church or other religious setting, or your community. In fact, even just having the perception that others will be there for you when you need them can have beneficial effects on many aspects of our health. Reach out and make a call to others if you are feeling sad or lonely over the holidays.
Don’t overload your schedule and try to get good sleep over the holidays. Getting sufficient sleep and having good sleep habits are associated with improved physical and psychological health and improved ability to regulate one’s emotions. Although you may not be following your typical schedule over the holidays, make sure that you keep up healthy sleep habits so you can rejuvenate. Many studies indicate that getting sufficient sleep can facilitate better mood and improve overall health.
The way we think can help determine how we feel. Notice the thoughts you have and the way you “talk” to yourself — are you focusing too much on possible negative outcomes, or underestimating your ability to cope with situations? Are you worrying or ruminating on certain thoughts that are taking up too much of your time during the holidays? Remember that not everything we think is always “true” — in fact, many people make cognitive “errors” such as overestimating the likelihood of a situation having a negative outcome. Typically, people find that situations they are worried about turn out to be better than they predicted, and that they were able to cope even more effectively than they thought they might. Changing negative and inaccurate “self-talk” to be more accurate can also have a positive impact on one’s mood and well-being.
If possible, strive for a balance over the holidays between family commitments, work commitments, and downtime. Even taking a few minutes before the beginning or end of the day for a brief meditation, mindfulness exercise, relaxation, or simple downtime to enjoy a hobby can help people feel more peaceful and more in control. Some find that the regular practice of emotional expression — such as writing about or talking with someone about one’s feelings — can also foster good emotional well-being as well as better health.
Increasing feelings of predictability and control over controllable situations in our lives can reduce stress. Develop a good daily routine that allows you to feel in control. Working throughout the year to improve planning and organizational skills can also be incredibly helpful in reducing stress. These skills can come in especially handy during the holidays, when there are typically many more tasks and activities to manage.
What are the best ways to help/be mindful of someone experiencing holiday stress or sadness?
First, it is important to be sensitive and aware that people around us can have a range of both positive and negative emotions over the holidays. Reach out to someone who you think might need some company. Perhaps you could ask them to join you for one of your holiday traditions, or ask if they might like to join you for an activity or outing. Simply offering to listen can be incredibly helpful for someone who is feeling lonely. Connect people with resources on campus or in the local area if they need more significant help or therapy — sometimes it is especially difficult to find these resources when one is feeling overwhelmed or depressed. Be mindful of the fact that sometimes the people who need the help or company the most might be initially difficult to engage. Remember that many acts of altruism and giving — whether volunteering your time, donating material goods, or engaging in other generous activities such as listening to others tend to give just as much to the “giver” as the “receiver,” and can be replenishing and positive for all.
Boston University has numerous resources on campus for students, faculty, and staff, such as the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, which has adult and child programs, and maintains a national referral service to connect people with evidence-based mental health services. Furthermore, there are other services and resources on campus and in the Boston area to help people who are feeling overwhelmed, including Behavioral Medicine, campus clergy, local hotlines, among others.