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Stress Management Health Center

Home for the Holidays

Tips for overcoming holiday anxiety and stress.
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The holidays offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and anxious -- the gifts you haven’t wrapped, the pile of cookie exchange invites, the office parties. But for many, the biggest source of holiday stress is family -- the family dinner, the obligations, and the burden of family tradition. And if you’re fighting clinical depression, or have had depression in the past, the holiday stress can be a trigger for more serious problems.

“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “That’s not the case. Family relationships are complicated. But that’s doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”

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With holiday family reunions looming in your calendar, what are some ways that you can prepare yourself and cope better this season? We turned to the experts for some tips on beating holiday stress and anxiety.

What Causes Holiday Stress?

First, ask yourself this: What about the holidays gets you down? Once you cut through the vague sense of dread about family gatherings and identify specific problems, you can deal with them directly. For many people, holiday stress is triggered by:

  • Unhappy memories. Going home for the holidays naturally makes people remember old times, but for you the memories may be more bitter than sweet. “During the holidays, a lot of childhood memories come back,” says Duckworth, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard University Medical School. “You may find yourself dwelling on what was inadequate about your childhood and what was missing.” If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life -- the loss of a loved one, a previous depression -- this time of year will naturally bring those memories back.
  • Toxic relatives. Holidays can put you in the same room with relatives you avoid the rest of the year. People struggling with depression may face stigma, too. “Some relatives don’t really believe you’re depressed,” says Gloria Pope, director of advocacy and public policy at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago. “They think you’re just lazy, or that it’s all in your head. It can be really hurtful.”
  • What’s changed. The holidays can highlight everything that’s changed in your lives -- a divorce, a death in the family, a son who’s making his first trip back home after starting college. Any of these can really unsettle a gathering and add holiday stress.
  • What’s stayed the same. For others, it’s the monotonous sameness of family holiday gatherings that depresses them -- the same faces, the same jokes, the same food on the same china plates.
  • Lowered defenses. During the holiday season, you’re more likely to be stressed out by obligations and errands. It’s cold and flu season and your immune system is under assault. It’s getting dark earlier each day. You’re eating worse, sleeping less, and drinking more. By the time the family gathering rolls around, you’re worn out, tense, and fragile. The holiday stress makes it harder to cope with your family than it might be at other times of the year.
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