Stressed-out spirits: Coping with the holidays

You may have heard that suicide rates spike during the month of December. For years, people have passed around this fact, but the statement is actually false. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates are lowest in December and peak in the spring and fall.

Barry Nierenberg, associate professor in the college of psychology, said that the myth might have survived because the holidays are stressful for many people.

“The myth fits the narrative,” said Nierenberg. “The holidays are a mixed bag for most people. It’s a time of great happiness and you see your family and all that’s nice, but it’s also very stressful.”

With the tasks of gift shopping, visiting loved ones and finding the time and money to do it all, there are more sources for stress to surface. Nierenberg said the use of social media could then bring about a bad case of FOMO, or the fear of missing out.  He said that putting all of this together could lead to feeling upset. Therefore, the feeling that we often call the holiday blues is really a case of holiday stress.

So now what? Are we doomed to a holiday season wrought with more mixed emotions than grandma’s holiday trail mix? Not necessarily. There are healthy coping mechanisms to help you deal with your holiday happenings.


Identify how your stress manifests

According to Nierenberg, in order to deal with stress, you need to identify what exactly is stressing you out. The easiest way to do that, he said, is to recognize when you aren’t quite yourself.

Nierenberg said that people usually experience stress in three ways: emotionally, cognitively and physically. As the names might suggest, emotional stress impacts your moods and emotions, cognitive stress involves a negative thought process and physical stress is expressed through the body, for example, through headaches or a change in sleep. Identifying how your stress manifests can help you avoid it.


Address the stress

Once you know what’s stressing you out, you can start taking the steps to cope with it. If you’re stressed by something that is avoidable, that bad case of FOMO for instance, then avoid it. Nierenberg said if going on social media is contributing to your stress, then try going on it less.

He also said to cope with your stress based on how it manifests. Physical stress can be addressed by exercise or some form of movement. Speaking to your support network and expressing those feelings can address emotional stress. Cognitive stress can be addressed by balancing each negative thought with at least three positive ones.


Realize that feelings can coexist

Nierenberg said it’s important to look at situations as a big picture.

“If you’re feeling something, it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing,” he said. “So, just because you are stressed out doesn’t mean the joy is not there. The reverse is also true.”

If you’re feeling the pressure of the holiday season, you’re not the only one. But the good news about those “holiday blues” is that they don’t have to cancel out your seasonal joy.

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