Managing stress during the Holidays

By Molly Richardson | Dec 16, 2013

The holiday season is a wonderful time of the year for many.  It is a time to be with family and friends and celebrate the traditions which bring us closer to the people and beliefs that hold value for us.  The ringing of bells, twinkling of lights and the smells of cookies and fresh baked breads are all signs that we have fully entered the holiday season.  While this can be a joyous time of the year, not everyone has a happy holiday season.  For some the holidays can be a particularly stressful and difficult time of the year.  
Many people can identify with the stress and strain of trying to get too much done during the holidays. There are so many activities to get completed including decorating, cooking, shopping, wrapping and all those wonderful parties. It is easy to feel overwhelmed.  Many also struggle with trying to figure out how to financially manage the desire to do for others, and at the same time try to live within the means of an economy that has only recently started to show some signs of improvement.
For some this stress and strain might highlight other issues including mental health disorders.
Mental Illness
Mental illness is a condition that impairs how a person thinks, feels and interacts with others.  Mental illness is a disorder of the brain.  Just like a person with hypertension has issues with their heart functioning, people with mental illness have problems related to their brain functioning. Mental illness can impact anyone.  It does not discriminate and it can be deadly if not treated.  According to NIMH (The National Institute for Mental Health), mental disorders are common and about one in four adults will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.  Mood disorders, including Depression, are some of the most common types of mental illness effecting approximately 20.9 million American adults each year.  Depression can co-occur with other disorders such as anxiety and addiction.
There is a close relationship with mental illness and suicide. It is important to understand that suicide remains one of the leading causes for death in the United States. In 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported 38,364 suicides, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. Many believe that the risk for suicide increases during the holidays.  Research does not support this myth and in fact, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that the rates of suicide are the lowest in December.  
So while stress and strain may increase during the holidays, thankfully the risk for suicide does not seem to increase.  
There are some steps you can take to decrease your holiday stress and focus on the joy of the season.
•    Remember the things that are important to you, and make sure you spend your time and energy toward those things.  Many times people will say that family is very important to them but when they look back they realize that they spent very little time with the people who meant the most to them. This can be true for anything that you value.  Make sure you keep the holidays focused on the things that are important to you.
•    Take time out for yourself.  There is an idea that doing things for yourself is somehow selfish.  We all need to take care of ourselves.  Maybe that means grabbing a few minutes of quiet meditation in the morning before everyone else wakes up, or going for a walk.  Do something for yourself that will give you energy and help you to remember that you are important, too.
•    Have Boundaries.  This means setting limits with yourself and with others.  It is OK to say no. It does not matter if it is another holiday party or that piece of grandma’s fudge, it is OK to say no.  So many times we agree to things that we really don’t want because we are worried about hurting other’s feelings. Learning to set limits and boundaries helps us to have more control of our lives and be able to focus on the things that are truly important to us.
•    Talk to others about how you feel or seek professional help. If things get overwhelming and you feel out of control it is time to talk to someone.  Reach out to a friend or family member and let them know what is going on or reach out to a professional who will understand.   Mental health treatment is available and it does help! Treatment is confidential and affordable.  For all of Western North Carolina, you can contact Smoky Mountain Center and they will help link you with care in your community. They can be reached at 1-800-849-6127.
Most importantly, if you are lucky enough to not struggle with mental illness, please remember that others need your support.  Be kind, hold out hope and show compassion and love to others. That’s what this season is all about.

Molly Richardson, LCSW, LCAS, CCS is a clinical social worker at the Behavioral Health Unit, MedWest-Haywood.

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