What is particularly stressful about the Christmas holiday period?
For many, the holiday season is a time to share with family and friends, overindulge in an abundance of food and spoil others with presents. However, for a significant portion of the population this is not the case and the holiday period can actually signify a time of immense stress. Holiday periods are expensive, especially Christmas holidays. The pressure of buying presents, attending social outings and at times, having to take time off work due to business closures, can create enormous financial pressures even for those who are financially stable. So, if we think of those who may be less fortunate, you can only begin to imagine the stress that some people may endure in this time to make ends meet.
Holidays are often associated with fun and relaxation - why might people experience sadness?
The Christmas holiday period is a time where losses in the family can become acute. Christmas is often portrayed as a time of ‘coming together’. However, for some the holiday period can be a stark reminder of loved one’s no longer present. It can trigger people to long for those they wish were still here and feel the sting of missing them just that little bit more during this time. Importantly, loss does not necessarily mean death. Perhaps people are long distances from family, maybe a divorced parent may not see their child due to custody arrangements, or family members might be incarcerated. In all instances, the holiday season can be confronting for many and bring to the forefront important absences in people’s lives.
What effect can an increase in stress/sadness have on someone’s mental health?
Heightened stress and/or sadness can greatly impact one’s mental state. For example, a person with a pre-existing depressive disorder may be at a high risk of lapsing into a depressive episode in the holiday season due to the increase in financial pressures, the rush of the ‘silly season’ and a decrease in sleep. A second example may be someone with an alcohol addiction. The celebration of the holiday season may trigger cravings to drink. This, paired with social pressures and the experience of a loss, can increase the likelihood of relapse occurring.
What should people look out for in other’s that might indicate they are not coping?
Everyone will experience stress and sadness differently. However, the following might be indications that someone you know might be struggling. Look out for signs of withdrawing/isolating behaviour such as declining social invites, avoiding phone calls, or a noticeable reduction in talkativeness. Also, obvious changes in sleep patterns or eating patterns can indicate stress. A change in someone’s mood, lacking energy and/or motivation can be signs someone is experiencing sadness that may lead to depression.
What suggestions do you have for people who may notice these signs in others? What can they do to help?
It’s common for people to try to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ a person’s emotional experience. How often do we hear “look on the bright side..”or “don’t be sad..”. To the person sharing their emotional experience, such responses can be incredibly invalidating. Allowing someone the space to express their emotions and feel heard is priceless. Try to reflect using phrases such as “It sounds like such a difficult time for you right now”. There might not be a fix and that is OK. Listening and providing support are powerful tools.
And remember, not everyone can relate to holiday well wishes such as “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”. If you’re aware someone is doing it tough over the break, consider how
to approach this - maybe acknowledge the difficult time “It must be a really hard time of year
for you” and offer assistance “what can I do for you to support you during this time”?. The
importance of asking these questions to those struggling should not be underestimated.