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Stress & the Holidays

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The holidays aren’t always a joyous and magical time for everyone. The season can exacerbate stress, anxiety and depression, causing strong emotions and pain. Image for illustration purposes
The holidays aren’t always a joyous and magical time for everyone. The season can exacerbate stress, anxiety and depression, causing strong emotions and pain. Image for illustration purposes
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Mega Doctor News

 By University of Delaware

The holidays aren’t always a joyous and magical time for everyone. The season can exacerbate stress, anxiety and depression, causing strong emotions and pain. 

“A lot of people just feel overwhelmed. Some of the most stressful times in our lives tend to be the happiest times — getting married, moving and getting a house, right? Those great and happy times present the most stress that can be triggering, especially for those with a history of anxiety or depression,” said Jennifer Graber, associate dean of academic affairs and practice initiatives in the University of Delaware’s School of Nursing (SON) in the College of Health Sciences

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Every year around this time, mental health providers like Caren Coffy-McCormick, a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist doctor of nursing practice and assistant professor in SON, sees increases in patients.

“People are worried about getting their kids Christmas gifts, and they’re worried about simpler things like being able to afford their rent or heat,” Coffy-McCormick said.

This year, the annual inflation rate is higher than it has been in decades, and 83% of Americans report it as a source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

Graber reminds us that the holidays aren’t supposed to center around gift-giving; they have a deeper meaning. 

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“Spending time with a person is more meaningful or consider a handmade thoughtful gift,” Graber said. 

She admits, though, it’s harder for families with kids.  

“It starts at a young age in stressing that the holidays aren’t about presents,” Graber said. “It’s also important to have an open and honest, age-appropriate conversation with your kids about what’s going on. A lot of times, people don’t give kids enough credit — they’re more resilient than we think.” 

With some people stretched thin, more are turning to community resources and nonprofits, toy drives, or state assistance. They also shouldn’t be afraid to seek mental health help. 

“All of us struggle more than anyone knows.” Coffy-McCormick said. “You’re not alone. Don’t be embarrassed. Mental health is a real thing. It has always been a real thing, and it really is instrumental that people get help,” 

She stressed people consider a therapist, who can be so much more than just someone to talk to.

“Therapists can be very helpful in setting up a whole life plan and trying to help people modify their schedule to decrease stress and help with finances,” Coffy-McCormick said. “We need to stop looking at mental health as a problem and look at it more as a coping skill and life coaching that we all need.”

Mental health is also one of the largest issues facing college studentsSean’s House on UD’s campus is a safe haven for youth ages 14-24, offering free services and peer specialists to young adults with mental health or substance use challenges. Reducing the stigma around mental health remains an ongoing priority. 

“If you had high blood pressure, you would go to the doctor and get medication,” Graber said. “Why is asking for help for depression or anxiety any different? You have to take care of your whole body — not just the physical — but also the emotional and the mental parts too.” 

Social media fuels anxieties year-round with Facebook becoming divisive and Instagram showcasing people living their best lives.

“How many people put on their social media: ‘I could hardly get out of bed today?’” asked Coffy-McCormick. “If they did, somebody would undoubtedly say something mean or they’d ignore it. We need to say to people — everybody struggles more than we know, and it needs to be OK. That ‘pull up your bootstraps’ and move on attitude needs to stop. We need to be more empathetic to people.”

Graber also stressed giving yourself grace.

“Everyone is susceptible to something unplanned happening in their lives. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. You can’t always put yourself last, “Graber said. “It’s OK to ask for help. Even if we were taught growing up that asking for help is a bad thing, and for some, it’s a point of pride. But swallow that pride — there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.” 

For centuries, holidays have also centered around indulgences and drinking, which can be challenging for those with substance use disorders. Binge drinking during the holidays is a public health problem, according to the American Addiction Centers.

“We used to encourage abstinence, but now each case is looked at individually,” Coffy-McCormick said. “Even a decrease of one drink at a time is progress; any decrease in consumption is progress. But if a person goes to parties and binge drinks, we’d encourage them not to go.” 

She further recommended Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and that those with substance use issues have a sponsor or therapist on speed-dial.

“They need to have someone they can call during difficult moments,” Coffy-McCormick said.

The holiday season also leads to stressors surrounding travel and seeing family. Coffy-McCormick’s advice: “Only do what you can handle.”

She recommends reflecting on how the person felt if they interacted with family at Thanksgiving. 

“Evaluate how that went and make a pros and a cons list,” Coffy-McCormick said. “If there’s a toxic situation in play, don’t keep subjecting yourself to toxicity because it affects you and your children. It teaches them that we continue to tolerate certain things, and we want them to have coping skills.”

Loss of loved ones can bring grief that makes it difficult to be cheerful during the holiday season as well. 

“Some people don’t have people to spend the holidays with,” Graber said. “The epidemic of loneliness is real, and COVID-19 has exacerbated that. There are still people who haven’t gotten comfortable being around other people. Maybe, people are sick and can’t visit, or they’re afraid of getting sick.”

She said it brings new meaning to the phrase “the new normal.”

“People have to learn new ways to do things or relearn how to interact with people. They have to find their comfort level and take those baby steps to get there,” Graber said. 

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