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Holiday Hang-Ups

As joyous as the holiday season can be, many people find it is often accompanied by varying degrees of stress. Local experts weigh in on how to best prepare for and handle all the anxiety you or your loved ones may encounter this month.

Around this time of year, most people look forward to family gatherings and get-togethers with friends to celebrate the many wondrous holidays that are quickly approaching. However, for individuals and families coping with mental health challenges, the holiday season can be a lonely or stressful time, filled with anxiety and/or depression.

This time of year can worsen stress symptoms due to various factors. Experts say one such reason is the perceived anticipation of what the holiday experience could or should be. According to Dr. Diane Thompson, professor of psychological sciences at Valencia College West Campus, “the holiday season is filled with unrealistic expectations of perfection, which are impossible to attain.”

Without even realizing it, people tend to look to movies, television and various social media outlets as to how their holidays will play out. “Although it is not a secret that social media highlights the ideal scenarios and the best side of every person, individuals are still impacted by the comparison of what they see on social media and what they are living,” says Dr. Kenny Tello, manager of team member well-being at Orlando Health.

While the holidays are meant to bring people together, for families with conflicts or issues, the season often brings about a sense of dread. The holidays can also be particularly hard for someone who has dealt with the loss of a loved one. “Whenever an individual has experienced a loss, holidays become a reminder of that absence,” Tello says. “If the loss happened during a particular holiday or season, the holiday now has a different meaning for the person.”

For those who are already battling chronic mental health issues, Tello says the holidays “can add to the external expectations and internal pressures, thus exacerbating issues with conditions like depression and anxiety.” Thompson concurs, adding, “When someone is struggling with a mental health issue, the focus on joy can highlight the contrast between what is expected and what they are experiencing.”

Effects on Children

Holiday stress does not only impact adults. In fact, many children are affected by the holidays and some of the challenges that the season brings. One culprit may simply be a disruption to their normal routine.

“Children often enjoy being at school with their friends, so being off from school may leave a child with less to do, more free time and without their friends to hang out with,” says Dr. Thresia Gambon, president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FCAAP).

Gambon points out that, as with adults, children may also be influenced by social media and what they see on television in terms of how the holidays are “supposed to be,” with unrealistic expectations for presents, experiences and increased family time. “Although holidays are expected to be cheerful and special, that expectation alone may be hard to fulfill,” she says. “Some parents may not live in the same household whether from divorce, separation, etc., and this can cause stress for the child, who may feel unsure how to split their time.”

Avoiding and coping with stress

Experts agree that finding the root cause of the stress and pinpointing triggers can relieve internal pressures and make uncomfortable situations more manageable. “Many of us will say, ‘The holidays stress me out,’ which suggests that every moment is miserable,” notes Thompson. “In reality, there are specific aspects of the holidays that are more challenging to us than others, so we need to identify those so we can make a plan.”

While pre-planning is always beneficial when it comes to organizing or attending a holiday event, it is equally beneficial for the mental well-being of the individual and his or her family members. Gambon advises parents to discuss the upcoming holidays with their children. “They should prepare the child for the celebrations,” she says. “If possible, include the child in planning.”

One often neglected aspect of the holiday planning is self-care. Thompson notes the importance of “allowing ourselves to enjoy the holiday treats, meals and drinks without going overboard.” Tello agrees, saying, “Focus on what you can control. If it’s outside of your control, let it go.”

“We often forget what really matters to us and put more energy into the perfect decorations and gifts rather than focusing on the interactions with those we love,” Thompson adds. “We may spend so much time in the kitchen that we miss out on the laughter and conversations going on around us.”

Letting go of unrealistic expectations and relieving yourself of the self-induced pressure of making the holidays perfect for your family and guests is a great way to curb disappointment in yourself, allowing for more joy all around. “If ordering a cooked meal or desserts instead of cooking everything allows for less stress and more time for family interaction, then that may be a helpful plan,” Gambon suggests. “Maybe go to the movies or plan a different fun event. The holidays often focus on tradition, but new traditions can be made.”

For individuals dealing with anxiety and/or depression, Thompson recommends they “listen to their own body and mind and set boundaries if needed. It is important to fight the urge to step up as much as everyone else if you are not feeling your best. It is crucial to put your mental health first, even if someone else doesn’t support that.”

For those with loved ones navigating mental illness, Thompson emphasizes the importance of communication. “They may be battling depression, and the negative thinking that occurs makes people feel that they shouldn’t bother anyone else. Reach out but understand if they aren’t up to doing anything. They will feel loved and valued simply because you checked in.”

With the right mindset, the holiday season can be a joyous time, no matter the obstacles. Thompson highlights the importance of “taking inventory of what you value and find to be most important in your life during the holidays. We need to focus on the aspects of the holidays that really matter to us and our families.”

One of the keys to a successful holiday season is being present in the moment. Tello advises, “Take breaks. Make sure you are taking time to recover during the holidays instead of waiting for the holidays to be over to do so.”