It should be the season to be jolly, yet sadly, too many folks are describing this time of year as more stressful than magical. Welcome to what is commonly known as the “holiday blues.”
A telephone survey conducted by the American Psychological Association recently demonstrated that – compared to other times of the year — out of 786 individuals polled, 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men felt more stress during the holidays. In addition, 51 percent of women and 42 percent of men said purchasing and giving gifts only added to their distress.
Although the holidays continue to be a time of joy for many, we must also acknowledge that the holiday season can trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are many contributing factors to such feelings. Just the time change alone is said to cause as many as a third of people with a history of a major depressive disorder to experience a worsening of their symptoms. Depression is the world’s most common mental ailment, affecting approximately 16 percent of adults at some point in their lives.
If we have learned anything about the stresses of this time of year, it is that we cannot force ourselves to be happy just because it is the holiday season. People are faced with a dizzying array of demands. Schedules can become overloaded; stress is at its peak. It is hard to stop and regroup.
As pointed out in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, any kind of stress can strain relationships and cause us to withdraw from others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found daily hassles like working, running errands, and money troubles negatively influence romantic unions, causing people to feel less satisfied and more alone in their relationships. When people are anxious and fatigued, it becomes more challenging to see someone else’s point of view. This may explain why family feuds seem more likely to arise during the holidays.
This year there is even a new malady joining the parade. It is called “headline stress disorder.” In a world where we are constantly connected, news headlines are constantly in front of us. A study by the American Psychological Association released last February found that two-thirds of Americans are stressed out over the future of the country. The constant consumption of a 24-hour news cycle was pinned as a major contributor.
Diminished energy, less interest or pleasure in activities, sadness and sleep disturbance are all symptoms of the holiday blues. However, we should not confuse the holiday blues with clinical depression. Holiday blues will come and go. Experts point out that comparing the holiday blues to a depressive disorder is like comparing a cold to pneumonia.
Approximately 10 million adults in the United States suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder; an excessive or unrealistic apprehension that causes physical symptoms and lasts for six months or longer. Stress-related events such as the holidays can trigger as many as half of all depressive episodes experienced.
It is also not unusual for anxiety to be expressed physically rather than emotionally. People can become so used to feeling anxious that they fail to link the distress of physical symptoms with the anxiety. This can make it difficult for doctors to make a correct diagnosis since anxiety can produce a wide variety of symptoms. Many of the symptoms of anxiety can mimic physical medical issues, such as an asthma attack, a heart attack or vertigo.
There are many stories appearing this time of year with their 10-point plans to combat holiday blues and the stresses of the season. I will try to keep my suggestion simple: Prioritize self-care. With so much of the holidays focused on providing things for other people, it is easy to neglect ourselves. Experts point out that this externalization of efforts can deplete a person’s reserves and worsen symptoms of anxiety or depression.
The holidays are an opportune time to reflect and as psychologist Juli Fraga suggests in an NPR editorial, to this year give the gift of “presence” instead of “presents.” While gift giving has long been considered a principal way to express love, recent research suggests that gestures do not need to be large or have a hefty price tag to feel meaningful to a loved one. Small acts of kindness, not grand overtures, make people feel most loved and supported.
Dr. Zita Oravecz is a professor in human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University and one of the researchers for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships study. “Our research found that micro-moments of positivity, like a kind word, cuddling with a child, or receiving compassion make people feel most loved,” she says.
It starts by taking care of you, taking a pause and remembering to breathe.
As Ms. Fraga points out in her editorial, according to the American Institute of Stress, focused breathing elicits the body’s “relaxation response.” It slows one’s heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and helping muscles relax. This physical process aids in repairing an overactive nervous system, helping us to enter a calmer physical and emotional state.
“For everyone, breathing is a small but powerful act that can keep us connected to ourselves by shifting our awareness to the present moment,” says mindfulness coach Dr. Carla Naumburg.
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