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How to pass the holiday stress test

Despite the best of intentions and preparations, life can still spin out of control during the season.

The pressure to find the perfect gift for everyone on our list can be exhausting.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

There’s an unmistakable irony in knowing that the month following Thanksgiving is one of the most stressful times of the year.

Counseling experts agree that the juxtaposition between giving thanks for all we have, and then dealing with the many foibles of the holiday season, can be jarring.

“The holidays are traditionally the most hectic time of the year. It really starts in September with back-to-school, and picks up in October,” said Dr. David Rainen of Merrimack Valley Psychological Associates in Andover. “By November and into December, counseling practices tend to be our busiest. The holidays’ disruptions to our typical schedule, combined with other potential stressors, often can lead to some challenges for our mental health.”

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Counselors throughout the region report similar experiences.

“In my work as a clinical social worker, I find that the fall, as Thanksgiving approaches, is a time I can count on seeing increased stress and depression,” said Karen Levine, associate director of Charles River Counseling Center in Needham. “I do think the holidays have gotten harder, with more disconnection and social isolation, as well as the pressures of social media, with all of its comparisons and demands to be gorgeous, skinny, funny, talented, to have and to buy.

“The holidays are a challenge because they can bring us face to face with what we long for and feel we don’t have, most significantly our version of a loving family or community,” said Levine. “For some, with nowhere to go or painful family dysfunction, this can feel devastating.”

Likewise, Sarah Harris, outpatient program director at Mentor South Bay in Attleboro, said she “would agree that December is historically one of the most stressful months for many, and continues to be the case today.

“The commercialization of the holiday season and unrealistic expectations can exacerbate stress,” said Harris. “The ‘Hallmark’ holiday isn’t exactly obtainable for most of us, yet we have the tendency to set our standards unreasonably high, which results in higher levels of stress.”

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Pressure from work can add to holiday stress.Adobe Stock

Holiday hardships can come in many forms, including changing or interrupted routines, financial woes, work and/or school pressures, grief and loss, unhealthy or toxic family and friend dynamics, and loneliness.

“The holiday season can tend to amplify these issues for a variety of reasons,” Harris said. “People can feel an increased need to ‘people please,’ which increases stress. And the sentimentality of the holidays causes us to miss those who are no longer with us.”

Those amplified demands and expectations can result in people feeling overwhelmed. “Sometimes we feel trapped in what we think must be done to please everyone,” said Levine. “We must attend everyone’s events, even the dreaded ones. We must visit all, set a perfect table, throw the right party, buy something for everyone.

“I notice that the givers and pleasers are particularly vulnerable, embarking on a months-long relentless job of checking off the boxes,” she said. “We can easily lose sight of what is important, and let our anxiety get the better of feelings of joy and connection.”

Family ties and other relationships can be particularly thorny. “To manage nontraumatic family dynamics, the secret is to focus on the positive, not the negative,” said Rainen. “We all often — incorrectly — believe that anyone we disagree with must be bad, or have few redeeming qualities. But the truth is, we all have much more in common than we have differences.

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“If you choose to or have to interact with someone you disagree with, or have a challenging past with, try to focus on where you align, not where you diverge,” he said. “Love your family and friends for who they are and not who they aren’t.”

If you can’t avoid interacting with a family member or someone with with you have a traumatic past, advocate for yourself, Rainen said.

“Taking precautions to distance yourself, informing others who will be present of the situation, and setting clear limits should this individual approach you will be key to managing your mental health,” said Rainen. “Remember, you can always leave a situation that upsets you.”

Meanwhile, the opposite of dealing with toxic relationships is loneliness, and that situation can be just as painful, said Harris.

“If you’re not in the company of others during the holiday season, you might consider what you can do for yourself,” she said. “You may find it helpful to spend the holiday doing things you value the most or that you find enjoyable, [such as] reading your favorite book, watching your favorite movie, volunteering your time, cooking your favorite meal, et cetera.”

Essentially, Harris is promoting self-care. “We tend to think about self-care in terms of ‘What can I do for me?’ but often overlook that self-care includes saying ‘no’ to people or tasks that will cause you to burn out,” she said. “Don’t stretch yourself too thin.”

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Levine emphasized that self-care is closely related to self-compassion. Both are important during the holidays.

“Dr. Kristin Neff, author of ‘Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,’ teaches that most of us think that punishing ourselves with our thoughts will help us do better, but research shows that the opposite is true,” she said. “Offer yourself words of compassion, like you would a good friend.”

One key to dealing with holiday stress is developing coping mechanisms. Rainen said his “top tip” for handling stress and anxiety is to have a number of management strategies, not just one.

“Whether it’s exercise, talk therapy, meditation, listening to music, distraction, or any other intervention, it’s imperative that you have a variety of options that you can utilize,” said Rainen. “Too often people find one that works for them, and then insist that nothing else works for them.

“But becoming overly reliant on one coping skill will inevitably lead to stress and anxiety returning, because not all strategies can be employed in every setting,” he said. “If going for a run or listening to music is your coping skill, you likely can’t utilize these if you’re in a meeting at work or taking a test in class. But if you have a bunch of skills you can pull from, maybe you could do some deep breathing in your seat, or progressive muscle relaxation.”

Levine recommended that people be proactive, anticipating the rigors of the season and making “a plan” to deal with those issues.

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“If you’re feeling lonely, or are facing not having what you want, plan ahead,” she said. “Find small acts of self-care that make you feel good, and plan them into your day or your week — a walk with your dog, watching a favorite movie, reading poetry, doing a craft, going to church, volunteering. Perhaps friends are busy on Thanksgiving Day, but free the following day for a small gathering.”

When finances are tight, understand that there’s nothing wrong with being realistic about your budget, said Harris.

“We often feel pressure to find the perfect gift, and lose sight of our own limitations,” she said. “Consider money-saving options like Secret Santa, gift swaps, or spending limits.”

On a similar note, Rainen pointed out that not all giving requires spending money. “Give your loved ones the gift of time,” he said. “Anyone can go to a store and buy you something expensive. But the truth is, what makes gifts special for most of us is our connection to that person. So why not give them an experience, something that deepens your relationship? A home-cooked meal, a fun movie night, [or] an offer to help them with something that you know is important to them.”

Despite the best of intentions and preparations, life can still spin out of control during the holidays. For anyone dealing with an emotional emergency, or having thoughts of harming themselves or others, Harris recommended taking advantage of a new national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The hotline is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Just dial 988,” she said. “If you’re looking for support, we may be able to help.”

About 10 million Americans each year suffer from seasonal affective disorder.freshidea/Adobe Stock

Keeping spirits bright

Financial and relationship troubles aren’t the only potential psychological pitfalls during the holiday season. The very fact that the days are shorter can have an adverse effect on our moods.

“With fewer hours of sunlight, seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression that typically occurs in the winter months, impacts around 10 million Americans each year,” said Dr. David Rainen of Merrimack Valley Psychological Associates.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there is no clear consensus regarding the disorder’s cause, but it is believed that shorter days and less daylight may trigger a chemical change in the brain leading to symptoms of depression (the disorder is sometimes referred to as “winter depression”).

“Seasonal affective disorder is very real,” said Karen Levine, associate director of Charles River Counseling Center. “Many clients and friends report increased sadness as the days get shorter and colder.”

The disorder typically develops during adulthood, and the risks increase with age, with women affected more often than men. Symptoms can include increased sleep and daytime drowsiness, loss of interest and/or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to rejection, irritability, anxiety, feelings of guilt and hopelessness, fatigue or low energy level, decreased ability to focus or concentrate, increased appetite, and weight gain.

Treatments may include a combination of the following:

  • Increased exposure to sunlight, especially in the morning; Spending time outside or near windows.
  • Light therapy: Exposure to a special light for a specific amount of time each day.
  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy can help change distorted views, improve interpersonal skills, identify stressors, and provide management techniques.
  • Antidepressants: Prescription medications to correct the chemical imbalance that may lead to seasonal affective disorder.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.