Dec 14, 2023
Tis the season of stress
As you prepare for a season of feasts, family and festivity, are you also bracing for a big helping of holiday stress?
You’re not alone.
Many people suffer from increased anxiety, depression and substance use during the holidays according to research, including a study by the American Psychological Association that found nearly 40% percent of Americans report increased stress during the season, 1 in 4 experience frequent fatigue, and 7% feel “frequent sadness.”
“It can be a difficult time of the year for some people for several reasons,” said Dr. Patricia Abbott, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who works on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts mental health team. “There is an expectation of celebration and happiness, but many find the season stressful for a variety of reasons, including the expense and the faster pace of the season just as hours of daylight diminish. Those with substance use disorders may struggle to maintain sobriety, and those with eating disorders may have difficulty with the holiday focus on food.”
Add to that the colder weather across much of the U.S. and the challenges that brings for some, and you have a recipe for an increase in mental health concerns, Abbott says.
She noted that the holidays aren’t always carefree for children, either.
Even in healthy families it’s a stressful time of year, and kids can pick up on that. They are sensitive to what’s happening in their home environment
Dr. Patricia Abbott
A little stress can be expected, but Abbott noted red flags that may indicate mental health concerns that may require extra support:
- Feeling worried, withdrawn or depressed, or experiencing low energy or a loss of interest in activities, especially if these issues last more than two weeks.
- A loss of function or impaired function at home or work. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed and having trouble at home, trouble with your role as a parent, grandparent or spouse or trouble functioning at work, you should talk to your doctor,” Abbott says.
- Changes in sleep, either sleeping too much or experiencing interrupted sleep.
- Changes in eating habits or other physical symptoms, such as losing or gaining a lot of weight.
- An escalation in drinking or other substance use.
- Talking about harming yourself or feeling that you can’t go on. The national suicide hotline—1-800-273-TALK—is available 24/7.
Look inward and reach out
"If you notice these signs, there are steps you can take to feel better," says Dr. Gregory Harris, senior medical director for mental health at Blue Cross and a practicing psychiatrist.
“Awareness is so important,” he said. “The first thing I recommend for everyone is looking inward about this time of year and being honest with yourself about your patterns and what may cause them. Do you feel more stressed or blue than usual? Do you tend to drink more during the holidays? We all have our patterns.
“The second step is to take time to think about tangible things you can do to make this time of year better for you. It could be cutting back on gift-giving or decorating, or speaking with your mental health clinician about how to set healthy boundaries with your family members, or developing strategies to effectively manage events where there is alcohol.”
Harris and Abbott also recommend maintaining healthy habits, such as:
- Eating well, including a balanced diet of healthy foods and plenty of water. “It’s okay to indulge during the holidays in food and alcohol, but try to do so in moderation,” Harris says.
- Fitting in exercise. Even a 30-minute walk once a day can do wonders for your mental health, Harris says.
- Getting plenty of sleep – 7 to 9 hours is recommended for most adults.
- Staying connected. “Connecting with loved ones is critical for mental well-being,” Abbott says. “Consider sharing with others why this season is especially difficult for you. It can help them support you.”
- Seeking treatment. Contact your PCP or mental health clinician. “That’s what we’re here for,” Abbott says. Blue Cross members who need assistance finding mental health and/or substance use disorder services can visit the health plan’s mental health resource center or call the number on their member ID card.
Over the past few years, Harris added, Blue Cross has expanded access to mental health care.
We believe mental health is health, and we’re trying to make sure all of our members can get the help they need, especially during what can be a challenging time for many
PHOTO OF DR. GREG HARRIS BY MIKE GRIMMETT