by 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.