David Hanna

For most of us, the holidays take us out of our routine. We buy things (presents) we don’t normally buy, we indulge in unusual food and drink, we see friends and family members who aren’t in our normal circle.

And for many people, this adds up to a really stressful time. In fact, the American Psychological Association offers an online “Holiday Stress Resource Center” to help people deal with anxiety brought on by gift-giving, financial stress and even political disagreements at the dinner table

“One of the things that’s happening in the U.S. is that many families are finding lots of stress related to the political environment when they have family get-togethers,” said David Hanna. a licensed clinical psychologist and behavior health program manager at Passport Health Plan. “People are identifying the political climate as one of the major stressors in their lives. Not a small number of people, a lot of people.”

Stress as a good thing?

Stress, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, Hanna said.

“Stress is anything that presents a demand or a threat to people,” he said. “The body’s natural reaction to that is to prepare to meet that. You’ll get an increase in blood pressure, an increase in heart rate, an increased energy level. For most things that’s really good. That’s what helps us get through a demanding presentation or what causes you to slam the brakes on really quickly to avoid an accident.”

When stress becomes a negative in someone’s life, it shows in several physical ways, such as elevated blood pressure and heart rate, difficulty sleeping, digestive issues and even anxiety and depression.  Hanna’s advice is to recognize the signs and take action, if possible, to relieve it.

Taking steps

That could be as simple as asking for time off from work, or getting relief time from care-giving for others. But the best ways to relieve stress are to get some physical exercise and eat right.

“Physical activity is very curative for people who are under stress,” Hanna said. “You also want to pay attention to your diet. Sometimes when people work long hours or have lots of demands on them they forget to eat in a health way. It’s important to keep your body able to respond to demands.”

Hanna said that holiday stress can affect anyone, at any age.

“A lot of people enjoy the holidays but find some aspects of it particularly stressful,” he said. “First, there are a lot of extra demands. People feel they have to decorate or prepare special foods. They may have to shop for people and feel financial stress. Although the holidays are great, people should be reasonable.”

And then there’s all that free time with relatives or friends you only see once a year. Someone inevitably brings up politics, and it becomes a very divisive issue for families. Hanna said it’s wise for family members to be prepared for the topic and set it aside during family time, or simply agree to disagree on politics.

Finally, especially for young people, there’s the addictive quality of social media that can bring on undue stress. Hanna said it’s important to understand that social media relationships often aren’t real relationships.

“Friends have anxiety about how other people perceive them, and their social media profile takes on a reality and when people comment on it is different from a real relationship. It carries tremendous impact when people worry about show they’re seen,” he said.

All these stress triggers take on added impact during the holidays. Being aware of what’s driving the stress, and taking action to relieve it, is the best way to survive.