Stress, depression and the holidays: 10 tips for coping from the Mayo Clinic

By Mayo Clinic staff

The holiday season, which begins for most Americans with Thanksgiving and continues through New Year’s Day, often brings unwelcome guests — stress and depression. And it’s no wonder. In an effort to pull off a perfect holiday, you might find yourself facing a dizzying array of demands — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining, to name a few. So much for peace and joy, right?

Actually, with some practical tips, you can minimize the stress and depression that often accompany the holidays. You may even end up enjoying the holidays more than you thought you would.

Recognize holiday triggers

Learn to recognize common holiday triggers, so you can disarm them before they lead to a meltdown:

  • Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you’re thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.
  • Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.
  • Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.

Tips to prevent holiday stress and depression

When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if the holidays have taken an emotional toll on you in the past.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videotapes.
  4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  8. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Take control of the holidays

Don’t let the holidays become something you dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the stress and depression that can descend during the holidays. With a little planning and some positive thinking, you may find that you enjoy the holidays this year more than you thought you could.

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What is PAIRS?

Intimacy is critical to the process of developing and sustaining close relationships, now a major concern in our culture. Modernization has shifted the primary function of marriage from providing security, stability, and raising children to developing a lifetime of love and intimacy. In previous generations successful marriages depended upon duty and role competence. Modern marriages require greater interpersonal competence as well as equality between partners. Relationships are sought that not only create stable families but also provide partners with a lifetime of love and companionship.

The PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) programs, developed by Lori H. Gordon, Ph.D., provide a comprehensive system to enhance self-knowledge and to develop the ability to sustain pleasurable intimate relationships. Gordon's approach integrates a wide range of theories and methods from psychology, education and psychotherapy and presents them in an educational format. PAIRS acts to bridge therapy, marital enrichment, and marriage and family development.

Programs: Courses and Workshops

PAIRS offers programs to the public led by PAIRS Trained Professionals (licensed health care professionals), and PAIRS Instructors (certified clergy and educators), trained under the auspices and supervision of Gordon and the PAIRS Foundation, the organization that officially oversees PAIRS programs, products and licensing worldwide. There are PTPs and facilitators around the world. Check “Finding an Educator” to find one near you or near one you love who may need PAIRS.

PAIRS is effective in all populations for which it has been adapted. PAIRS has relationship skills training programs for children and youth, PAIRS for PEERS, that are taught in schools, churches and agencies. PAIRS has programs for the Military, for use by chaplains and family service workers. PAIRS has faith-based programs for the Jewish, Catholic, and Christian church communities. PAIRS is currently developing programs and program delivery systems for disadvantaged youth, unmarried families, single parents, domestic violence, prison parolees, and related groups who can benefit from relationship skills training. PAIRS provides a vital ingredient to build stable marriages and healthy families with more hopeful futures for children. These programs for special groups will be taught by local agency workers and by specially trained community teachers and mentors. Research on PAIRS has demonstrated that PAIRS works for all groups under all circumstances evaluated. PAIRS is a modern technology adapted to our rapidly changing society in behalf of creating a saner, safer more loving world.

What you will learn in PAIRS

Sustaining a pleasurable intimate relationship does not work by magic. It depends upon a set of skills and understanding that can be learned. We learned most of what we know about intimate relationships through our early experiences in our families. Our personal history has a great deal of influence on what happens in our current relationships - on our behavior, our feelings, our expectations. We can change these influences if we become aware of them and wish to. It is well worthwhile to sort through what we inherited, keeping what fits for today and changing what does not.

PAIRS Competencies are specific skills that you will learn from PAIRS. These competencies focus in three areas: 1) emotional literacy; 2) conjoint partner skills for building and maintaining intimacy; and 3) practical knowledge, strategies and attitudes for sustaining positive marriage and family life. You may click on the above links to see a listing of the skills taught in PAIRS.

The Goal of PAIRS is a relationship that both partners can live with joyfully. For this to happen, each partner must become able to identify his or her own feelings and needs, and learn to communicate them in such a way that they can get met. This means communicating one's needs and desires without making the other partner feel resentful, smothered, burdened, manipulated, or inadequate. Easily and fully meeting each others' needs is the foundation of intimacy, fulfillment, and happiness.

PAIRS teaches specific easily learnable tools for successful communication such as confiding, complaining, and clarifying and for effective problems solving such as managing anger, expressing anger safely, fighting fairly for change and eliminating dirty fighting. PAIRS also guides the vast deepening of self-knowledge and develops emotional literacy. PAIRS addresses pleasure and satisfaction by teaching skills to enhance bonding, sensuality and sexuality in marriage. PAIRS teaches a profound but simple model, the Relationship Roadmap, to understand relationship success and to understand relationship mishaps and know what to do about them. PAIRS teaches over 60 skills that, after PAIRS, become the participants' PAIRS Tool Box for ongoing relationship maintenance.