Like gift-giving, feasts and Christmas trees, stress also counts as a holiday tradition.
High expectations, loneliness and stress can lead to the “holiday blues.” Experts said in most cases, symptoms are temporary, but they also can be serious if they last for more than two weeks, leading to clinical anxiety and/or depression.
A 2014 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Arlington, Virginia, reported that approximately 24 percent of individuals with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse and 40 percent said their condition became “somewhat” worse.
“For many people, the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” NAMI Medical Director Ken Duckworth said in response to the organization’s survey. “What the survey shows is a tremendous need for people to reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season.”
Despite the fun and enjoyment, the holidays can bring for many, for others, it can be a time of stress, anxiety and depression, according to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center chaplains and other behavioral health experts.
In a posting on the Military Health System and the Defense Health Agency’s website, the experts explained that the holidays can present a number of challenges, including family demands, spending, shopping, parties, cooking, entertaining, cleaning and more.
“First, society places a lot of pressure around the holidays,” said Capt. Heather Borshof, an Army chaplain and student in the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Walter Reed.
“It is embedded in us culturally that there is the expectation that everything needs to be perfect during the holidays. For most that is not the situation.
“Second, holidays can be expensive and not everyone has the means to buy what our culture says we cannot live without. People either place themselves in debt, or feel badly about not being able to afford those items that society says we must have,” the chaplain continued.
“Third, holidays can be a lot of work. Other life responsibilities do not stop and the added pressure of getting everything done for the holidays can bring about more stress than joy,” Borshof said.
“Finally, the expectations are that the holidays are a time to be with family and friends. Those who are without often feel sad and depressed because it reminds them that they are alone,” she said.
Borshof recommends keeping things in perspective to decrease stress and depression during the holidays.
“Nothing is perfect and that is all right,” she said. “Things will go wrong, and the key is to remember that something is not ruined just because it is not perfect.”
A new survey by VitalSmarts found that 26 percent of people say that trying to stay healthy, active and sober over the holidays is one of their top five stressors, 44 percent of people live by the motto, “my diet starts in January,” 20 percent say they are much more tired and irritable than happy during the holidays, and 10 percent say they have no rules when it comes to health and diet this time of year.
One problem is that as the holidays set in people begin to veer into the extreme behavior of overindulgence, and look to January as a time of extreme rebooting, where they don’t overspend or eat too much.
According to Jillian Michaels, famed personal trainer, wellness expert and author of the new book “The 6 Keys: Unlock Your Genetic Potential for Ageless Strength, Health and Beauty,” these extreme behaviors are where we start to lose our way and risk our health — and sanity.
“The number one most important thing is striking a balance,” Michaels told NBC News. “When you put the word ‘too’ in front of anything, you have physiological anarchy, and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
With the Christmas countdown upon everyone, Dr. Lucetry Dalton, a senior clinical health psychologist, said she recommends avoiding factors that can add stress as much as possible.
“Sometimes holidays open the doors for family arguments. Another big thing that people kind of overlook is grief and loss during the holiday. You know, it might be your first holiday without a specific relative that recently passed away,” Dalton told an ABC News station in Flint, Michigan.
She used a sports analogy to drive home the point of recognizing when you need a breather.
“So if you’re a clutch player and you know you work best under pressure and you take that final shot — you do everything the last minute, get all your gifts and wrap it all in the last minute — if that works for you, then that works for you,” Dalton said. “If you’re someone like me who has to plan ahead. I’m going to make sure I don’t even get into that position where it comes down to the last minute — or just know when to sit down and take a break and have another teammate come in and help you out.”