The perfect storm: Economic stress and holiday stress collide

Crimandoby Steven Crimando

A 2004 poll from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 61% of Americans identified money issues as the leading cause of stress during the holidays. Oh, for the good ol’ days of 2004! Participants in that survey listed lack of money, lack of time, the pressures of gift giving and credit card debt as significant sources of strain. One in five Americans surveyed expressed concerns about their physical health and many reported increased eating or drinking to cope with the stress.

That was all long before the bottom fell out of the global economy. In a good year, the holidays can be stressful enough, taxing our relationships, finances and physical endurance. This year brings new challenges requiring a proactive approach to managing the effects of a potentially toxic blend of holidays and finances.

In this issue of the Behavioral Risk Bulletin, we explore the intersection of economic stress and the stress associated with the beginning of this year’s holiday season. Holidays have an amplifying affect on emotions, both high and low. Much of this amplification is driven by the attitudes and beliefs we hold about the importance and meaning of the holidays, as well as our own expectations and the expectations of those around us. For many, the holidays are a time of reflection and review of the past, while also for planning and goal setting for the future. In an environment marked by uncertainty and fear, this holiday season may seem overwhelming. Understanding the unique challenges created by the confluence of economic and holiday strain can help us anticipate and perhaps prevent some of the potential emotional and behavioral hazards this holiday season may hold.

The Root of Anxiety

Cognitive dissonance – a term in the field of social psychology – is when one feels uncomfortable or anxious due to juggling two contradictory ideas or beliefs. Dissonance occurs when people experience an inconsistency or a gap between their ideas of how things should be and how they really are. Theorists suggest that the greater the gap, the greater the degree of anxiety, guilt, shame, anger or embarrassment. People can by haunted by the “tyranny of the shoulds”: “I should have been able to get better/more gifts for people”; “I should feel happy, it’s the holidays”; “I should have handled my money/career differently”, etc. While one might believe that they should feel joyous during the holidays, this may contradict the reality that portfolio values are slashed, jobs are on the line or that many people are struggling to hold onto their homes.

Cultural norms, family traditions, office rituals and other forces may shape the individual’s or group’s expectations of how the holidays should be. From gift- giving to the annual bonus, there are many holiday- related activities that may require severe modification during the current economic downturn. Living up to holiday expectations can be tough, but this year they may be even tougher.

The Big Three: Sources of Holiday Stress

The Mayo Clinic has identified three main sources of holiday stress: relations, finances and physical demands. For those with families, pre-existing conflicts and tensions can be exacerbated, misunderstandings are more common, and simply being together for longer periods of time can be stressful. For those alone during the holidays, for whatever reason, separation and isolation can heighten feelings of loneliness and sadness. Financial stresses associated with the holidays can stem from overspending on gifts, travel and entertaining. The post-holiday crash often coincides with the arrival of the first credit card statement of the New Year. For many, the physical demands of the holidays represent the greatest stress, with increased shopping, cooking, socializing, and at the same time, increased eating, drinking and many late nights.

Seven Strategies for Coping

There is no one best way to cope with the emotional challenges of this unusual holiday season. You may discover a technique or strategy on your own, but here are seven different ideas to consider:

1. Manage Expectations: Denial can complicate many problems and failing to acknowledge the reality of your situation can lead to overextending yourself, physically, emotionally and financially. Have an honest discussion with those you normally exchange gifts with about how you might change a tradition or find new and creative ways to express your love. Although this may be difficult with young children, especially those who still believe in the magical aspects of the holiday, tempering expectations ahead of time may be very helpful.

2. Compartmentalize: Allow yourself your emotions and then let it go. Whether you are angry, anxious, sad or disappointed, permit yourself to have those thoughts and feelings and then turn them off. This takes some practice, but compartmentalizing allows you to pick and choose when you will deal with these emotions, rather than them controlling you. Find a time and place before a holiday gathering to get in touch with these feelings, but set a limit and when the time is up, leave them there and go onto festivities at hand. You can always go back to that physical and/or emotional place when the event is over.

3. Visualize Success: Make a conscious effort to mentally rehearse a holiday gathering. Use images that make you feel safe and cared for. Do not visualize conflict, upset or tension, only success and comfort at the gathering. Breathe slowly, center yourself and picture pleasant conversations and contact with your friends and family.

4. Limit Distressing Contacts: Don’t be afraid to say enough is enough and walk away from someone who is prying, making you uncomfortable or anxious. Be polite, try changing topics, but ultimately, it may be better for everyone if you find a way to extract yourself from the conversation to visit others at a gathering.

5. Let People Know What Would Help: Try to tell those around you what you really need, since they may not know how to help you, and ask for their understanding if you decline an activity. People may even avoid you if they feel uneasy or unsure what to say or how to help. During a time when emotional support and contact can be so helpful, don’t let a lack of communication create unnecessary barriers.

6. Easy Does It: Holidays are notorious as times for excessive eating and drinking. Finding comfort in familiar holiday foods is understandable and common, as is drinking more than usual or perhaps sensible. Be aware of this tendency and try to enjoy yourself without overdoing it.

7. Remember the Meaning of the Holiday: The winter holidays in most traditions are steeped with meaning and symbolism. We have heard again and again the complaint, “The holidays have become too commercial.” Here is an opportunity to simplify, reduce materialistic holiday habits and get in touch with the true meaning of the holiday. If nothing else, holidays are about family and friends, about pausing from the daily grind and stepping back to savor the things that are most important in our lives. This holiday less can be more.

Get Out of Your House, Get Out of Your Head

In many parts of the country the holiday season is also characterized by changes in the landscape. Get out, take a walk, breathe the cool clear air and stay in touch with nature. Physical exercise is a wonderful antidote for the winter blues. It is also therapeutic to get outside of our own emotional experience by volunteering and helping others in need. Doing so can reduce feelings of isolation and can help put your situation in perspective.

If you are having real difficulty letting go and giving yourself a break from the heavy thoughts and feelings related to a holiday season marred by economic woes, remember that you are not alone. Be on the lookout for symptoms of depression and the warning signs of potential harm to others as well – “If you see something, say something”. If you are worried or feel uncomfortable about behavioral and emotional changes in a loved one, a friend or co-worker, err on the side of safety and reach out. If you think that they are at risk in any way, seek professional assistance.

Counseling services may be accessible in the workplace through your organization’s Employee Assistance Program or in your community at local community mental health centers and faith-based agencies. If you are having difficulty locating sources of emotional support or are worried about how stress if affecting you, the National Mental Health Association has an online search tool to help you find nearby resources and a help line staffed by trained and qualified counselors. You can call to speak with a counselor at 1-800-969-6642 and explore more ideas for coping with the emotions arising from this unique holiday season.

Steven M. Crimando, MA, BCETS, is a noted author, consultant and trainer to governmental agencies, NGOs and multinational corporations. He is the Managing Director of Extreme Behavioral Risk Management (“XBRM”), a consultancy focused on the human factor in disaster recovery, business continuity and homeland security. XBRM is a division of ALLSector Technology Group, Inc., a New York based full service technology consulting company offering systems integration, managed services and applications development and implementation. ALLSector Technology Group, Inc. is a subsidiary of the F∙E∙G∙S Health and Human Services System, one of the nation’s largest and most diversified not for profit organizations.

Mahila Partnership is launched


Dear friends & colleagues,

As many of you know, Nicole Mason and I co-founded a non-profit this year – Mahila Partnership We are a grassroots organization dedicated to serving vulnerable populations and working on projects related to education, community and disasters. Most recently we have partnered with UMASS Boston’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters. As their NGO Partner we will be working with them on their November 2008 International Conference on Rebuilding Sustainable Communities for Children and their families after Disasters.

You are invited to contact me directly to learn more, volunteer or learn about sponsorship opportunities. Please share this information with anyone you feel would be interested.

In support of the work at Mahila and initiatives at Caritas, I have been participating in projects related to women’s issues and disasters.

Also very exciting to me, (the amateur photojournalist that I think I am!!) I will be profiling issues in healthcare as well as the lives of women & their families as a result of our work through writing and photography. You will see my work on Big Medicine and other online & print publications. A new article will be posted on Big Med soon!

My work at BCPWHO and in healthcare in the areas of disaster management, domestic violence, vulnerable populations and emergency medicine will continue.

If you would like to learn more or have projects that you believe may benefit from some of these initiatives, you are invited to contact me.

Kindest regards,


Angela Devlen
Emergency Management, Caritas Christi Healthcare
President, Mahila Partnership
Director, BCPWHO


Mahila Partnership Partners with UMASS-BOSTON Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities After Disasters

[Boston, September 16, 2008] – The University of Massachusetts Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities After Disasters (CRSCAD) and Mahila Partnership have established a partnership, working together to strengthen communities locally and internationally; focusing on sustainable rebuilding after disasters, and decreasing the impact of disasters on women and their families with a focus on particularly vulnerable populations such as those experiencing domestic violence or poverty.

Together, along with other international partners an inaugural conference, “Rebuilding Sustainable Communities for Children and their Families after Disasters”, will be held at CRSCAD November 16-19, 2008.

“The central objective is to provide an intellectual forum for scholars and practitioners around the globe to explore how rebuilding of communities after war or disasters can be carried out in a way that promotes social justice, economic and political sustainability, and the full participation of all stakeholders,” CRSCAD Director Adenrele Awotona said about the conference, which began to take shape after a successful conference he held at the University of Massachusetts-Boston on rebuilding in Iraq.

Experts participating in the November conference include:

Grace Oyebola Adetula, Nigeria, “Female Ex-Child Soldiers: Case Studies for East and West Africa”

Ashfaq Ishaq, USA, “Rebuilding After Disaster: A Child-Centered Approach”

Tutty Alawiyah , Indonesia, “Rebuilding sustainable communities for children orphaned by the 2004 Aceh Tsunami: The Case of As-Syafi`iyah Special Boarding School for Orphans”

Kai T. Erikson, USA, “Lessons from Katrina” (tentative)

Diane Levin, USA, “Understanding the Impact of Disasters on Children and
Helping Them Heal and Thrive Afterwards”

More information about the conference can be found at:

In addition to the conference, together Mahila Partnership and CRSCAD will work with vulnerable populations to develop and promote sustainable methods of community rebuilding after disaster, with a focus on the issues of domestic violence and poverty, both of which make women and their families even more susceptible to disaster. “Along with CRSCAD, we will work with our partners to support sustainable redevelopment of communities affected by poverty, violence and disasters,” says Mahila Partnership co-founder Nicole Mason.

About The University of Massachusetts-Boston Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities After Disasters (CRSCAD)

CRSCAD works in close collaboration with practitioners, academics, researchers, policy makers and grassroots organizations in their search for the most appropriate and sustainable ways to rebuild their communities after disasters (both natural and man-made). The work of the Center includes applied research, early childhood education and family support, communications and intellectual outreach to academic experts, other research groups and policy think-tanks. It organizes and hosts seminars, workshops and conferences on various aspects of post-disaster reconstruction in partnership with public and private sector agencies in all the countries of the world.

About Mahila Partnership

Mahila Partnership is a grassroots organization dedicated to serving vulnerable populations by promoting self expression through the arts; fostering awareness through educational initiatives; working to end domestic violence and poverty; and training women and their families so they are better prepared for, and more able to recover from disaster. Together with our partners, we create and support innovative projects to reduce vulnerability, promote dignity, and strengthen communities through long-term, sustainable measures.

A time for resilience

by Steven Crimando

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. It allows us to recovery from change or hardship, as individuals, families, communities and organizations. Resilience encompasses both strength and flexibility. It is associated with elasticity, buoyancy and adaptation. All of the attributes of resilience would seem essential in the current climate given market volatility and the unpredictability of global economic conditions. This issue of the Behavioral Risk Bulletin will focus resilience, its importance and strategies for building and enhancing resilience in times of crisis.

Aristotle, once said; “You are what you repeatedly do.” What you do repeatedly through thoughts and actions eventually become your habits. Some theorists feel that resilience is a trait, inborn, hardwired into our being, that it is an innate aspect of our personality. Others suggest that resilience can be developed. Advances in brain science tell us that what you think and how you think can influence the actual anatomical structure of the brain, as well as neurocircuitry and neurochemistry.

This concept, known as “neuroplasticity” suggests that despite earlier ideas that our habits, thoughts and beliefs are set in stone, that in fact you can teach old dogs new tricks. The brain continues to grow, change and adapt to challenges across our entire lifespan. Our thoughts shape our brains as much as our brains shape our thoughts. This relationship is now known to be a two-way street. We can use this knowledge to promote resilience in ourselves and in our organizations.

What Does Resilience Look Like?

Resilience is defined by several cognitive, emotional and behavioral markers. How an individual acts when confronted with sudden change or adversity helps us see resilience in action, it is observable. Resilient people demonstrate flexibility, durability, and the ability to organize and manage ambiguity. These individuals tend to be proactive rather than reactive, to have an attitude of optimism and a mindset that is open to learning. The resilient person is positive and views life as challenging but full of opportunities.

These may sound like personality traits and some may be, but that does not mean that individuals cannot develop resilience. By identifying and practicing these behaviors individuals can build or bolster resilience in themselves and support resilience in others around them.

Ten tips for building resilience

Becoming more resilient is a process and requires conscious effort and a degree of patience. Fostering resilience as an element of an organization’s culture requires even greater patience and consistent positive reinforcement from leaders. These efforts can pay off in meaningful ways but you are not likely to be able to reap the rewards of resilience without some significant effort. These tips can help you move to a higher degree of resilience in the face of current and future challenges:

1. Accept Change: Change is constant and inevitable. Some even say it is cyclical and foreseeable to a degree. Successful people accept change rather than resist it. Actively seek ways to become more comfortable with change.

2. Become a Continuous Learner: Many people resist learning new ways, cling to old behaviors and skills even when it becomes obvious that they don’t work anymore. Focus on learning new skills, gaining new understanding and applying them during times of change.

3. Take Charge: Don’t wait for someone else to lead the way, it may not happen. Instead embrace self-empowerment and take charge of your career and your own personal development.

4. Find Your Sense of Purpose: A clear sense of purpose helps you assess setbacks within the framework of a larger perspective. Develop a “Personal Why” that gives your work meaning or helps you put it into a larger context.

5. Pay Attention to Self-Identity: Form your personal identity apart from your job. A job is just one facet of your identity, and a career just one aspect of your life. To achieve some degree of resilience be sure to separate who you are as a person from what you do for a living.

6. Cultivate Relationships: Personal relationships can be a strong base of support and a critical element in achieving goals, dealing with hardships and developing perspective. Develop and nurture a broad network of personal and professional relationships as a component of your resilience-building strategy.

7. Reflect: Whether you are riding a wave of success or riding out hard times, make time for reflection. Reflection fosters learning, new perspectives and a degree of self-awareness that can enhance your resilience.

8. Skill Shift: Reframe how you see your existing skill set, consider transferable skills and develop new skills when possible. Questioning and perhaps even changing your definition of yourself or your career can lead to higher levels of resilience.

9. Develop Emotional Intelligence: Think creatively and flexibly when under stress. Focus on the future and gain strength from new opportunities that may present themselves. Expand rather than shut down when faced with a challenge.

10. Take Care of Yourself: It can be difficult to find the time, energy, enthusiasm or even the money to take care of yourself during tough times. Letting yourself become run down contributes to the problem rather than the solution. It is more important than ever to eat well, exercise and practice relaxation during times of high stress. Spend time with family and friends and regularly plan and enjoy fun activities.

Pulling It All Together

Resilience allows us to bend rather than break during stormy conditions. Being or becoming more resilient is a necessary survival strategy in unpredictable times. Working slowly but consistently toward greater resilience can help fortify you and your organization and help you weather this and other crises on the horizon.

Steven M. Crimando, MA, BCETS, is a noted author, consultant and trainer to governmental agencies, NGOs and multinational corporations. He is the Managing Director of Extreme Behavioral Risk Management (“XBRM”), a consultancy focused on the human factor in disaster recovery, business continuity and homeland security. XBRM is a division of ALLSector Technology Group, Inc., a New York based full service technology consulting company offering systems integration, managed services and applications development and implementation. ALLSector Technology Group, Inc. is a subsidiary of the F∙E∙G∙S Health and Human Services System, one of the nation’s largest and most diversified not for profit organizations.