Managing the Chaos
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., LPC, LMFT
Sr. VP and Chief Strategy Officer, Hope for the Heart
The holiday season is supposed to be a time for relaxing and celebrating with friends and family. However, that’s not always the case… rates of depression, drinking and drugging episodes, family and relational conflicts, disappointment, loneliness, and isolation, all increase during the last few months of the year. Holiday stress is real, but the good news is that it can be managed effectively if we know what to anticipate.
Noise… crowds… the feeding frenzy over the latest toy or gadget. For many, there may be a host of unrealistic expectations that seem to torment our souls. Some of us become hopeful that the “magic” of the season will solve a myriad of problems, reconnect us to family members or heal broken hearts. Others face financial pressures, the need to find the perfect gift, or simply the craziness of trying to fit everything into a jam-packed 5-6 week schedule. In fact, nearly 45% of Americans admit they would skip Christmas altogether if they could.
What is the impact?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Center, some of the stats are sobering:
• 75% of people experience “extreme stress” during the holiday season
• 69% are stressed by feeling or having a “a lack of time”
• 69% are stressed by perceiving a “lack of money”
• 68% feel greater fatigue
• 53% feel stressed about too much commercialism and advertising hype
• 52% are more irritable
• 51% are stressed over the “pressure to give or receive gifts”
• 44% are stressed about family gatherings
• 37% are stressed about staying on a diet – there is an average 18% increase in eating over the holiday period
• 36% feel greater sadness
• 35% feel greater anger
• 34% are stressed about making/facing travel plans
• 26% feel more lonely
The APA also reported that holiday stress can have a bigger impact on women (44% vs. 31% for men) because they often take on multiple roles (holiday celebrations, meals, gifts, children’s activities, their own workplace responsibilities, decorating, entertaining, coordinating family time, Christmas cards, etc.). Women are also more likely to use food (41%) and/or excessive drinking (28%) in order to cope.
The overconsumption of alcohol is another major consequence of holiday related stress. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Addiction (NIAAA), alcohol is a primary factor in a significant number of highway deaths between November and January (Thanksgiving – 40% of all highway deaths; Christmas – 37% of all highway deaths; New Year’s – 58% of all highway deaths). The NIAAA also indicates that 57% of people in this country say they have seen someone drive under the influence during the holidays. An increase in DUI violations tells the story: Thanksgiving – a 30% increase; Christmas – a 33% increase; and New Year’s – a 155% increase.
On an interesting note, higher rates of suicide during the holidays are a bit of a myth. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide attempts and completions peak between April and August and actually decrease in December. However, bouts of depression are still common. The American Psychiatric Association reports an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) due to shorter days and less sunshine during daylight hours. Symptoms can include depression, anxiety, mood changes, sleep/appetite disturbances, and lethargy. Seventy-five percent of all cases are women.
Stress can manifest itself in many ways, such as headaches, sleep disturbances, fatigue, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, a short temper, upset stomach, aching muscles (including lower back pain), loss of appetite, and a decline in productivity and work performance. Emotional stress also elevates blood pressure and heart rates, resulting in a surge of chemical reactions within the body that can create abnormal inflammatory responses. This often affects the immune system, as well as insulin levels, which disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.
If the emotional stress becomes too intense or overwhelming, underlying cardiovascular problems may surface, as well as an increased risk for acute cardiac events (primarily heart attacks). Certain stress related hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released and can impact pre-existing atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries of the heart. Blood clots are formed when plaque breaks off, damaging the vessel and leading to heart attacks and strokes. According to the American Heart Association, more than 50 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure and nearly 60 million suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, resulting in over one million deaths every year (two out of every five people who die or one every 32 seconds). Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the United States every year since 1900 (except 1918 during the flu pandemic) and crosses all racial, gender, socioeconomic, and age barriers.
The rise in cardiac “mortality” during the holidays is not epidemic (about 5%), but it is still considered to be statistically significant. Nevertheless, there is a 50% increase in non-fatal hearts attacks during the winter months, more than at any other 2-3 month period. Several years ago, sociology professor, David Phillips, examined over 57 million death certificates issued between 1979 and 2004 and discovered that not only do more people die during the winter months, but New Year’s Day is actually one of the deadliest days of all, with Christmas close behind.
What Are Some Good Stress Prevention Tips?
Here are a few suggestions to help maintain a healthy sense of balance during the holiday season:
1. Accept the fact right now that you simply cannot do everything and you cannot do it for everyone. Determine what are desires and preferences vs. what are true priorities.
2. Plan ahead as much as possible. Managing and scheduling your time is much better than your time controlling you.
3. Create a budget and stick to it. Don’t try to buy happiness – celebrate and enjoy it.
4. Give up the goal (or obsession) of having to be perfect and/or do everything perfectly. Life rarely works out that way.
5. Give yourself permission to set appropriate boundaries with people. Be willing to say, “No” and don’t feel guilty about it. Every time you say, “Yes,” you are saying, “No” to something else. Say, “No” to the right things.
6. Build in downtime for yourself. Read a book. Play. Relax. Go to a movie. Engage in a favorite hobby. Sit and just be still for a few minutes.
7. Share the tasks; do less, not more. Doing things together, especially when it flows out of genuine relationship, often renews the soul.
8. Don’t give up all of your normal and daily routines. Repetition and rhythm are good ways to minimize anxiety, worry, and depression.
9. Unplug from time-to-time. Be intentional about reducing the amount and use of technology, especially social media. Quiet your soul.
10. Have reasonable expectations for yourself and others. Understand that there may be some distance between the ideal and the real when it comes to family, friends, and schedules. Don’t make it your mission to “fix” people or the past. Instead, give the gift of your time and the ministry of presence.
11. If being lonely or depressed is a concern, get involved. Avoid isolation. Reach out and seek community. Spend some meaningful time offering service to others who also need a word or gesture of love and encouragement.
12. Eat and drink in moderation. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and can compound other symptoms of depression.
13. Be sure to get enough sleep. This is the body and mind’s way of restoring and revitalizing itself. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average person loses almost a day of sleep every week.
14. Listen to your favorite music. One study out of the University of Maryland showed that music can relax blood vessels and increase blood flow, especially in and around the heart.
15. Spend more time in direct sunlight during the winter months. Sunlight increases the production of serotonin, an important mood stabilizing neurotransmitter.
16. Smell the citrus. Research on depression has revealed that citrus fragrances can increase a person’s sense of well-being and alleviate the symptoms of stress because of increased norepinephrine production. Norepinephrine is another important mood-related neurotransmitter.
17. Take a brisk walk or work out on a regular basis. Moderate exercise is an effective stress reliever and has a positive effect on the brain by decreasing anxiety and improving sleep patterns.
18. Watch the caffeine intake (e.g., coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda). This is especially important after 3:00-4:00 pm because caffeine has an almost eight-hour half-life (meaning 50% of its effect is still impacting your body up to eight hours after consumption). Too much caffeine (a stimulant), when combined with increased levels of stress-related adrenaline (also a stimulant), over-amps every system in the body.
19. Meditate on your favorite Scriptures. Have some honey while you do it – food for the soul and for the body. Honey is a proven antioxidant (the darker the better), and has antibacterial properties that help the immune system while also providing a good source of energy.
20. If necessary or appropriate, seek out professional help. Untreated anxiety, depression, addiction, and other stress-related disorders can be potentially dangerous.
Finally, take a few minutes throughout the holidays to reflect on the things you are truly thankful for. Having a thankful heart can be transformative in so many ways. Create some of your own memories and traditions. Invite Christ, the true Prince of Peace, to have first place in your life and affirm once again the joy of His gift to you. Perspective is a great companion in the midst of all that seems crazy and disruptive. The holidays can become an endless pursuit of peace, joy, meaning, relationship, and so much more; yet too many of us look in all the wrong places. Jesus is the source. He told His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (Jn. 14:27). He is, as the angels proclaimed two thousand years ago, the, “good news of great joy, which will be for all people” (Lk. 2:10).