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Feeling overwhelmed? University of Kentucky psychologist offers a holiday survival guide

By Lindsey Piercy
University of Kentucky

Do you feel less than joyful during the “most wonderful time of the year?”

If so, you’re not alone.

Michelle Martel, a professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, says feeling the pressure of the holidays is fairly common. “In my clinical and personal experience, I would say most, but not all, people report increased stress around the holidays. However, only a subset of vulnerable people experiences clinical problems, such as depression and anxiety, around these times.”

From impeccable wreaths to the tree surrounded by a mountain of gifts — creating the “perfect” holiday can be overwhelming. Now, add the stressors that accompany a global pandemic.

“Holidays often also bring up sad memories for people whose loved ones have passed away,” Martel explained. “These stressors can also increase risk for anxiety and depression.”

The good news? Martel has a few tips and tricks to help you beat the bah, humbug.

(Photo from iStock/Getty Images, via University of Kentucky)

Schedule some “me time.”

If running around during the holiday season has you feeling frazzled, try to schedule some “me time.” Adults often forget to take time for themselves. Remember, being irritated can undermine everything you are trying to do for your family. You will be more present and pleasant if you take some time for yourself. Even just 10 minutes after the kids are in bed to have a cup of tea, or taking a few extra minutes in the shower or bath, can give you some added rejuvenation and help you stay more in the holiday spirit.

Stick to your routine.

During the holidays, schedules are thrown off and people often travel, which can lead to sleep disturbances, less exercise and activity, and unhealthy eating patterns. To the extent you can, try to maintain the semblance of a routine. That will be soothing for both you and your family. Buying healthy snacks, taking short breaks to stretch or walk and consistent bedtimes can be effective for maintaining good physical health. And encouraging healthy behaviors can have positive downstream effects on mental health and wellness.

Practice self-compassion.

Remember, the holidays are difficult for many due to losses/grieving, stress and financial strain. It’s ok if you are struggling — it’s normal to feel that way, and you are not alone. Take a deep breath, remind yourself you are in good company and you are doing the best you can. Your best is good enough.

Less is more.

Often, the things that stress adults out the most are the things that are least important to the rest of the family, including children. I used to become particularly stressed before elaborate holiday dinners, which included endless prep time and clean-up. Turns out, my family is happier with my husband cooking lasagna on Christmas Eve and quick chocolate chip waffles and bacon on Christmas morning. Consider making some changes to your holiday traditions that not only ease your load, but that might actually be a hit with the rest of the family.

Remember it’s the thought that counts.

Financial stress is a HUGE source of stress during the holidays. But really, thoughtful gifts count more than the number or the expense of the gift(s). There’s no need to break the bank if you can buy, make or write something you know will be sentimental. That will mean more to them than a gift that leaves you stressed about debt for months afterward.

Change it up.

For families grieving or going through loss at the holidays, I always recommend changing it up. If you know you can’t get through the same old holiday traditions without a loved one, do something different. Go on a trip, go to a different person’s house, celebrate at a different time of day or start a new tradition. This will make it easier to get through the first set of holidays until enough time has passed for you to be able to consider a return to the old traditions without too much grief and pain.

Ask for help.

You don’t have to do it all alone. Ask for help from your partner, close family, extended family, friends or even a mental health professional. Many hands do make light work. And in any case, it is very normal to struggle with anxiety or depression at the holidays, and new telehealth options make therapy more accessible than ever before.

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