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Healthy Living: Seven Risk Factors for Stress in the Holiday Season 

Healthy Living – December 6, 2016
Dr. David Prescott – Acadia Hospital

The holiday season is not stressful for everyone. For those of us whose stress levels do increase around the holidays, we can usually accept some stress as simply part of the season. But too much stress, anxiety, and depression can indicate a larger problem, or suggest that our strategies for managing stress need some reworking.

Here are 7 Risk Factors that put you at higher risk for feeling the impact of holiday stress:

Risk Factor 1: Your coping mechanisms end up creating as many problems as they solve. During times of high stress, people sometimes find that they resort to coping mechanisms that can cause more problems than they solve. Examples include unhealthy eating, cigarette smoking, excessive use of alcohol, or giving up regular exercise. One helpful stress management strategy is simply not to slip back into unhealthy habits.

Risk Factor 2: You have no idea where the money will come from. Most personal finance experts agree that we can reduce our financial stress by having a plan. This includes a plan about holiday spending. Having no plan causes more stress than figuring out a realistic plan, even if the choices are difficult.

Risk Factor 3: Your mood always seems to dip during the winter months. About 10-20% of Americans report feeling more depressed during the winter months, and somewhere between 1-10% of the population qualify for a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder responds to traditional medication and psychotherapy, as well as to exposure to high intensity light. It doesn’t have to be something you feel like has to wait for spring to improve!

Risk Factor 4: You’re doing everything you are expected to do, but nothing that you enjoy. People experience more stress when they are doing things that they don’t truly believe in. During the holidays, it may be tempting to hold yourself to the expectations of other people rather than act according to what you feel is important. Resentment, irritability, and anxiety intensify if we try to live up to standards that don’t fit with what we truly believe.

Risk Factor 5: Your family is – well – dysfunctional. Families don’t become healthier and more loving simply because a certain day is approaching on the calendar. In fact, the stress of holiday gatherings often intensify family dysfunction. If your family has a history of intense emotional conflict around holidays, it may be wise to limit the time you spend with them.

Risk Factor 6: You are a Woman over 30 years old. Research suggests that certain segments of our population are more likely to experience holiday related stress than others. Women more frequently report stress compared to men, and people under age 30 report less holiday stress than adults over age 30. Realize that people not in your age group may experience the holidays differently than you do.

Risk Factor 7: You’re having a hard time remembering what the holidays are all about. Finding personal meaning in our activities is a great remedy for stress in any situation. Work related stress, family related stress, and relationship related stress all become more manageable if we focus on the importance and value of these things are in our life. If you are experiencing high levels of holiday stress, take a moment and reflect on what makes this season meaningful to you. Then, act accordingly.
Getting Help:
If you experience high levels of stress, around the holidays or any time, try to identify active ways to cope, rather than passively hoping that the stress will simply disappear. Stress that triggers feelings of constant sadness or anxiety may need professional evaluation and treatment. Talking to your primary care doctor or a mental health professional will be helpful in determining if your stress has become something that requires professional treatment.
Helpful websites include:

American Psychological Association: <https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/>

Mayo Clinic: <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544>