Holiday Health

By Dr. Ari Zaretsky

There are many reasons why the holiday season can be a time of stress for people. Some of the most obvious ones are as follows:

  1. Longer nights and shorter days. During the December solstice, days are very short and the amount of light exposure is very limited in the northern hemisphere. This lower light exposure (both intensity and duration) can have a mood-lowering effect on all human beings. People who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, however, are most vulnerable to this negative impact on mood.

  2. Holidays are associated with marking seasons and time. They are therefore imbued with symbolism. For those who have recently lost a loved one, the holiday may stir up feelings of loss and activate sadness. This is particularly intense in the first year after the loss of a loved one. Even in the absence of actual physical loss, the holiday can be associated for some vulnerable people with awareness of time passing. This too can lead to comparison between what an individual hoped they would have achieved in their life and what they have actually achieved, leading again to feelings of self-criticism and disappointment.

  3. The holiday season is associated with a change in schedule. Although one intuitively expects holidays and unscheduled “free time” to be a source of fun and low stress, this is not necessarily true for some people. Some individuals find a lack of consistent structure to be disorienting and stressful. This is especially true if normal sleeping, eating and exercise routines are dramatically altered. Use of alcohol during the holiday season can exacerbate this problem even further in individuals who have mood or anxiety disorders. Individuals with eating disorders also experience increased stress and eating can become more erratic.

  4. The holiday season is often associated with forced family proximity. Although getting together with one’s extended family is often associated with positive feelings and joy, this is not always true. In families where there is discord and competition, the “enforced proximity” can be experienced as very stressful and upsetting. This phenomenon is heightened when one individual in the family has erratic behaviour caused by mental illness or a substance use disorder. 

Recommendations to Cope More Effectively With the Holidays:

  1. Recognize that this period of time can be stressful. Be compassionate with yourself and acknowledge your feelings if you do experience sadness or anxiety instead of joy and excitement. This is particularly true for individuals who are marking their first season without a loved one. Expressing these feelings of sadness to close friends and family members can often provide support. Avoid isolating oneself, since emotional healing is enhanced when friends and family members come together.

  2. Do healthy things to cope with stress. This might include keeping up exercise (indoors if necessary due to extreme cold), listening to soothing music (some people find Christmas/holiday music very soothing regardless of their personal religion and spirituality), meditating, pacing oneself with shopping for gifts, etc.

  3. If possible, travel to sunnier, warm climates. This may be seriously worth considering for those who are very sensitive to lowered mood due to a change in light exposure.If this is not practical, consider purchasing and using a special SAD-lamp for 30 minutes each morning. (One should consult with one’s family doctor or a psychiatrist first).

  4. Try to maintain consistent schedules related to sleep, eating and exercise. Avoid overindulgence in alcohol. For those with eating disorders or with heightened concerns about diet, try to be flexible rather than rigid during the holiday season.

  5. Avoid or mitigate potentially high stress situations. For those who belong to extended families where there is an unpleasant atmosphere associated with competition or erratic behaviour of a family member who has an uncontrolled mental illness or substance use problem, it is important to anticipate highly stressful scenarios in advance. If possible, try to examine the option of very limited exposure to dysfunctional family situations. If the family situation is viewed as too upsetting or toxic even in small doses, it might require more significant avoidance and exploration of other activities with different friends as an alternative to being with family members. 

Ari Zaretsky Photo cropDr. Ari Zaretsky is Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, as well as Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

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