Don’t Get Your Tinsel in a Tangle: Coping with Holiday Stress

By: Laurie Clark

stressed woman during the holidaysThe holidays are a time of giving, joy and merriment, but for many, they can also be a big source of stress.

In fact, according to a study by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of people feel their stress levels increase during the holidays.

Crouse experts Christine Kowaleski, DNP, MHNP-BC and Tolani Ajagbe, MD, along with our Spirit of Women team, recently hosted a program to address holiday stress and how to enjoy yourself this holiday season.

‘Tis the Season
“From the time Thanksgiving rolls around, we’re already thinking about Christmas,” Kowaleski said of the holiday season. “You’ve barely finished off the turkey leftovers and someone’s pulling out a string of lights.”

Kowaleski said the pressure to prepare for the holidays can be stressful, from cooking to shopping to finding that perfect gift. In many cases, the finances of Christmas are a big cause of stress, particularly for parents.

How Stress Manifests
When we feel stressed, whether it’s during last minute shopping or preparing to see your family, there are numerous physical symptoms that can occur. Your muscles might tense up, you may experience rapid or shortened breathing and you may even have bouts of nausea or vomiting.

“Over time, repeated episodes of acute stress can cause inflammation in your coronary arteries, which may even lead to a heart attack,” Kowaleski said.

Why We Stress
It’s important to acknowledge what is stressing you out and Kowaleski said that it can be different for everyone.

“Many people stress about finding the perfect gift for a family member, but what most people remember are the traditions and memories,” she said.

Another big stress factor for many during the holidays is family gatherings. “Every family can have some dysfunction,” Kowaleski said, “but the holidays can be a perfect time to make peace if you have someone in your family who you’ve had a difficult relationship with.”

Recognize your stress triggers and set boundaries, though, Kowaleski urges. Your emotional health is important and that may mean limiting the time you spend with certain people.

“Give yourself permission to do what’s best for you,” Kowaleski said.

Coping with familial loss can also be a source of stress for many around the holidays, especially during a pandemic.

How to Handle Holiday (or any!) Stress
To help you bounce back from stressful situations during the holidays (or any time of year), our experts suggest using these tips:

  • Ask for help when you need it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed during the holidays.
  • Set boundaries. Practice saying ‘no.’
  • Take time to laugh out loud and celebrate the funny moments.
  • Make time for a hobby that brings you joy, like painting, reading, or listening to a podcast.
  • Practice self-calming techniques, like box-breathing or meditating.
  • Get plenty of rest. Avoid excess caffeine.
  • Keep up your healthy habits. Drink plenty of water, make time for exercise and eat healthy, filling meals.

Coping Mechanisms to Avoid
One thing you don’t want to rely on to cope with stress, is drugs or alcohol.

According to Dr. Ajagbe, women especially have a tendency to ‘self-medicate’ with drugs or alcohol.

“We have already seen a big surge in cases of addiction due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

In fact, according the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there has been significant increase (323 percent) in alcohol use in women with children under the age of five.

Staying sober during the holidays is all about setting limits, Ajagbe said.

“Make use of your support system and know how much is too much for you,” he said.

If you’re already in a program like Alcoholics Anonymous, attending regular meetings throughout the holiday season will be helpful. Make sure you have a plan for holiday gatherings and set realistic goals for yourself. Perhaps you can find new ways to celebrate that don’t involve alcohol at all.

If you’re not currently in a program and are seeking help for alcohol or substance use, Crouse Addiction Treatment Services has a same-day access program that is open to all.

Finding Joy
It’s important to remember that the holidays come around every year. Our hope for you is to enjoy this time with your friends and loved ones with as little stress as possible.

Happy holidays!

Laurie Clark is the Communications and Digital Media Manager at Crouse Health.

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