by Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk
During the holiday season, images of a crisp snow covered lane, with the view into the frosted window of a warm and cozy home, the scene of a blazing fire, a long decorative table filled with scrumptious holiday delights, and loved one’s surrounding the table brings feelings of dissonance for many. The holidays absolutely have the potential to bring feelings of intimate experiences filled with belonging, exhilaration, sharing, and gathering with loved ones. For many, however, there are increases in stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness, difficulties with grieving and loss, conflict, and contemplation.
There is meaning to the ornaments being unboxed, the candles lit, and the years, many times, decades of tradition. There are customs leading up to the season, feelings of anticipation, significance to the day(s) of celebration, and the letdown after everything is put away.
Mental Health Issues Exasperated
During the holidays, mental health, behavioral health, medical issues, and autoimmune issues that individuals grapple with each day have the potential to become exasperated and contribute to increased symptoms, stress, and feelings of exhaustion. For many, it’s extremely difficult to navigate through increases in symptoms and difficulties with coping. Many times, individuals’ cope with negative coping mechanisms (i.e., alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, lowered self-care, and/or misuse of medications).
Consider individuals grappling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), “Twelve month prevalence of GAD is .9% among adolescents and 2.9% among adults in the general community of the United States” (American Psychiatric Association, p. 223, 2013). Individuals have the potential to experience symptom increases (i.e., difficulty concentrating, irritability, difficulties controlling worry, levels of fatigue, muscle tension, and issues with sleep), which complicates discomfort and difficulty in managing symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, p. 222, 2013).
Additionally, individuals contending with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) grapple with an array of symptoms (i.e., fear of negative evaluation, being humiliated, and/or rejected), many times, avoiding social situations (American Psychiatric Association, p. 202, 2013). During the holidays, it’s difficult to avoid all social situations and associated symptom increases.
Furthermore, consider the significant impact and issues with functioning associated with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), “Twelve month prevalence of major depressive disorder is approximately 7%, with marked differences by age group” (American Psychiatric Association, p. 165, 2013). Symptom increases (i.e., feelings of sadness, hopelessness, minimal interest and pleasure, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, diminished concentration, and issues with sleep) complicate already difficult daily functioning and increase the probability of grappling with each facet of holiday obligation and interactions.
Conceptualize the experience of comorbidity of GAD, SAD, and/or MDD with or without substance use (and/or any mental health diagnosis) and its associated symptoms, with the presence of holiday stress, pressures, and the impact physiologically and psychologically. It’s best to seek out therapy prior to the holidays to develop positive coping strategies, realistic expectations, awareness to pressures, work through increases in symptoms, and to decrease the probability of underlying issues being triggered.
Engaging and Balancing Conflict — Differing Views vs. Differing Values
Some families benefit from closeness and healthy working dynamics. However, even when this is present in the environment, there is potential for conflict and tension during high pressure and high stress times; including desirable ones during the holidays.
Inevitably, there will be internal triggers experienced when engaging with others, which has potential to feel agonizing. In this environment, develop awareness to balance what degree of engagement feels healthier. At times, lighter conversations will assist in minimizing triggers. In the event, stress and discomfort become too overwhelming to engage, take a few moments to walk outside for some air. Take a few deep breaths and allow the increases in oxygen to balance parasympathetic response, and increase oxygen to the brain to assist with feelings of relaxation, (Wolford, p. 2, 2015). Furthermore, spend time with younger family members; if this is enjoyable. Children and adolescents have potential to bring a different perspective and magic to the holiday, which increases fun and increases relaxation.
Additionally, avoid family conflict. There are two primary areas of focus. First, refrain from engagement, debate, and argument regarding issues of contention between family members and/or friends in general, and where estrangement is present. At times, there may be pressure to choose sides. There is psychological benefit in refraining from choosing sides, treating each person with respect, and engaging with each person individually, if necessary. Reflect prior to being in the shared environment on personal values and feelings regarding the dynamics surrounding conflict. The cognitive process of reflection has potential to increase levels of confidence to support disengagement in the conflict, while dually engaging with others in regards to the positive aspects of relationships and holiday gatherings. This will lower stress, and minimize increases in mental health symptoms.
Lastly, it’s reasonable to have different views; it’s a driving factor of being human. Many times, human’s enjoy debating these views. There is a level of cognitive stimulation, fun, and strategy involved. With this being said, individuals must consider individual motivations, and how each message is given and received. There are distinct differences in the motivations of debating in positive banter with loved one’s out of pleasure, mutual understanding, and respect, even with the presence of opposing views and/or a heated discussion. Equally, it’s beneficial to refrain from debating in negative, critical manners with a family member and/or friend of differing values where high tensions are present. During holiday gatherings, consider each individual relationship, underlying motivations, and feelings. When tensions are high and values are vastly opposing, different views have opportunity to be debated at another time. In this situation, it’s best to refrain during holiday gatherings. However, in a cohesive and healthy environment, enjoy the banter. Individuals possess varying levels of impulse control. Develop awareness of strengths in impulse control, areas of grappling, and the resulting behaviors of each; then, gauge the best course of action accordingly. In each interaction, engage with respect and graciousness.
Loneliness, Isolation, Grief, and Change
At times, there are shifts in family, friends, supports, and a sense of community. Death, illness, and/or divorce are difficult to navigate through in daily life, and exhausting during the holidays. New traditions that have yet to be created and resistance to shifts in traditions that are no longer possible are common. For divorced partners with children, there are the adjustments for each in regards to splitting time. In the most amicable situations where partners remain respectful and possibly friendly, difficulties, stress, grief, and negative feelings have potential to arise during the holidays. Negotiating for wellness of each individual involved is imperative to maintaining balance and decreasing the probability of future issues.
The loss and associated grieving of a deceased loved one is an excruciating and extensive process. Many times, significant changes to meaningful traditions are a painful reality. Developing awareness that grief will resurface intermittently, many times over, and during meaningful interactions is imperative. Finding ways to honor the deceased loved one will assist with holding on to the meaning of significant traditions, and decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness; including traditions that will inevitably change over time. Grieving is an individual process, the time frame varies from person to person, and is based on the significance of the relationship. It is vital to develop self-compassion and to seek out supports.
Start with being honest about limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. When there are children in the home, balance spending time with children, and with family and friends. Schedule visits on days close to the holiday celebration instead of over committing in one day. This will increase enjoyment of holiday events and decrease feelings of obligation, and potentially, resentment. Additionally, the gatherings may become a tradition and special day to look forward to for each individual involved.
Many times, thoughts, feelings, and ruminations in regards to family dynamics, divorce, death, estranged relationships, and the focus of seemingly endless obligations increase stress, anxiety, and/ or depressive symptoms. It becomes overwhelming for individuals and difficult to balance. Most times, it is beneficial to ask for help, which has the potential to reduce stress and increases the capacities to function well throughout the holidays.
Having awareness that there will be stress assists in setting realistic expectations. Many times, a few simple changes will allow flexibility, while dually honoring traditions (i.e., cooking the meal in advance, offering for each person to choose a dish to bring, setting boundaries to time spent at each gathering, and/or planning finances and budgets a year or more prior). At times, the more an individual attempts to take on without assistance or planning, the more emotional and psychological difficulties are experienced, creating an exasperation of mental health, behavior health, and/or medical issues.
Balancing Obligations and Desirable Engagements
Balance obligations and spending time with loved ones; especially, loved ones with a significant role in life. Plan each day by writing each event, commitment, obligation, and list of items needing completed in a planner. While doing this, implement a block of free time to decompress, and to balance unexpected shifts and obligations along the way. Each will reduce stress and assist in balancing emotions, energy, and mental health. Consider taking vacation and/or personal days if they are available and will not contribute to more stress at another time of the year. Doing so will allow for balancing commitments, downtime, and increase the opportunity to decompress after the holiday.
Continue nutritional habits (refrain from inflammation supporting foods), regular exercise, activities, and incorporating healthy sleep cycles. For long trips, bring snacks and water. In addition, when offered to stay with family and/or friends, consider personal comfort. For example, if one partner feels uncomfortable due to personalities, temperament, family dynamics, and/or if children get tired and need rest, consider staying at a hotel for the night. Make it fun for the family and have awareness of individual feelings, thought processes, and how daily function is potentially impacted. When setting boundaries, be kind, gracious, and genuine. Avoid using children as an excuse – be accountable for individual feelings, emotions, comfort, values, setting boundaries, avoiding “ the shoulds,” and saying no when necessary.
When the Ornaments Are Boxed
After the ornaments are put away, and daily life moves forward, it’s important to consider what to do with unprocessed feelings and emotions, and the grief and loss of the passing season. Begin to navigate the cognitive steps towards healing by seeking out the support of family, friends, community, and a therapeutic relationship. Focusing on gratitude (what is present over what is void), resuming daily activities, and seeking out strong supports assists with this process greatly.
In conclusion, the holidays are layered with complex emotions and meaning; simultaneously filled with the potential to grapple with increased symptoms of mental health and medical issues, stress, loneliness, and the innate desire to connect, share, give, and experience intimate feelings of belonging. Consider the benefits to being mindful that each person’s life experiences, environment, genetic predisposition, personality, temperament, supports, family and friends, and dynamics are different. Ultimately, develop awareness and engage realistically regarding the pleasures and difficulties associated with the holidays – allow for positive interactions to happen organically towards a more genuine and enjoyable experience.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Benson, H. 1979. The Mind/Body Effect. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Benson, H., & Klipper, M. Z. (2000). The Relaxation Response. New York: William Morrow.
Wolford, K. (2015). Relaxation response: Herbert Benson. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.
Mandi is a therapist with over 6 years experience working with adults, couples, older adults, adolescents, and first responders. Mandi works with an array of issues, and is passionate about supporting others. She feels strongly that human-beings benefit from the experiences of learning, growing, and developing throughout each stage of life.