The Truth About Holiday Stress and Suicide Risk

holiday stress

As Christmas approaches, counseling offices can start to fill up with clients who are having a difficult time managing the stress. Stress is a problem for many people year-round, but there is something about the holidays that tends to cause an increase in stress for some. It makes sense because there tends to be a lot more to be stressed about!

Dealing with traveling, spending more money, being around family…it all adds up to negative stress, also called distress. But, what is a person to do about all this stress?

Here are some Tips for Handling Holiday Stress

Don’t set expectations too high.

Rid yourself of the illusion that the Christmas season will be perfect. Setting expectations too high can lead to disappointment and frustration. Instead, setting reasonable expectations (or even low ones!) allows room for things to not go well without causing your client to become undone.

Accept that things won’t go perfectly as planned. 

Even if you have fairly realistic expectations, things still won’t be completely smooth. We need to understand that some of that is beyond our control. Letting go of that control can lead to less stress.

Don’t over-do.

Focus on a few areas that you can really enjoy. For example, choose one or two special events to attend. Same with gift-giving and volunteer work. No one can do it all, and planning ahead can lead to a more relaxed Christmas season.

Schedule downtime.

Nights where you and your family have no plans except to spend time at home. Maybe that will involve sitting in front of a fire drinking hot cocoa, watching a Christmas movie, decorating cookies or a tree, or simply sitting quietly while listening to Christmas carols. But, it could also mean spending time extra meditating on a Bible verse, praying, or writing in a prayer journal.

Combat loneliness. 

Sometimes people are lonely during the holiday season because they don’t have or can’t spend time with loved ones. They can be encouraged to get involved in a local church or volunteer to surround themselves with others. Focusing on others can help decrease their own loneliness.

Tips for Dealing with Family

Another area of stress for many is dealing with family. You may not get along with certain family members or perhaps you are just not used to spending very much time together. Here are a few more tips on how you can enjoy family time together.

Plan well. 

Make sure you organize family visits. You should not be afraid to set fair, but firm boundaries. Knowing where visiting relatives will stay can help reduce tension among those family members. And if you are going to stay with family, make sure it is clear what the expectations are. Do you need to bring an air mattress? Is there a “lights out” time? Some of these may sound silly, but planning ahead can lower stress and increase the chances of enjoying family time together.

Stay away from controversial topics.

In today’s society when many people live apart from their relatives, this precious time together should be spent enjoying and sharing life together. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have heart-to-heart conversations; quite the opposite because face-to-face is the best way to have those. But, words should be chosen carefully and debating or arguing should be avoided.

Be flexible. 

Instead of being demanding and wanting to do everything your own way, I encourage my clients to allow family to choose the restaurant, the activity, or the movie. They should focus on being together rather than what they are doing together. They should also be forgiving and focus on not taking everything so personally.

Identifying Suicide Risk and Depression

Additionally, we know as professionals that some people experience sadness, loneliness, and relational conflict that is beyond the scope of the “holiday blues.” In that case, they will need more intense treatment focused on combatting those symptoms. As an evidence-based form of psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one treatment of choice that integrates well with Christian principles. Helping clients to challenge their thoughts, journal, and problem solve are all interventions that could be utilized to help clients who are feeling particularly down at the holidays. If a client has experienced these symptoms during past holiday seasons, it is a good idea to encourage them to get started early to avoid or reduce their symptoms this year.

Finally, despite popular myth, suicide actually occurs the least in December compared to all other months during the year (CDC, 2011). That being said, we should not decrease our assessment and prevention efforts during this time of year. We should be sensitive to the fact that just because suicides decrease during December, they do still occur.

Talk Back: What have you found helpful—both personally and professionally—in managing holiday stress?

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A version of this piece originally appeared at www.aacc.net, published with permission.


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Dr. Laurel Shaler
Dr. Laurel Shaler is the author of author of "Reclaiming Sanity: Hope and Healing, for Trauma, Stress, and Overwhelming Life Events. She is a Licensed Social Worker and National Certified Counselor employed by Liberty University as a professor and department chair in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Studies. She is a former psychotherapist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she specialized in the treatment of trauma and anger. Dr. Shaler loves the Lord and seeks to help people at the intersection of faith, culture, and emotional well-being. You can learn more at her website www.drlaurelshaler.com or find her on Facebook or Twitter @DrLaurelShaler.