The holidays are a time for celebrating and spending time with friends and family. Unfortunately, it can also be a very stressful time of year for some people, doctors say.
"I get calls from old patients; I get calls from new patients," said Anne-Marie C. Kelly, a licensed clinical psychologist and registered nurse with offices in Manhattan Beach and Bel-Air. "They're almost always around issues of relationships. The holidays bring all that into focus."
Kelly, who spent an additional six years in school to become a graduate psychoanalyst, said most of the stressors come from disappointment stemming from unrealistic expectations.
"Everybody wants to go back to the magical Christmas picture … where everybody gets along and everything is wonderful and families get along very well, when in fact, their families never did get along very well," she said. "The disappointments in relationships generally bring on feelings of helplessness.
"One of the things that augments that feeling of helplessness … if you don't know how far you are stressed and you don't know the source of your stress, then of course, you're going to be helpless."
So how do people know if they're stressed? Symptoms of stress include restlessness, sense of disorganization, irritability, tension in back and neck muscles, wandering mind, negative thoughts, butterflies in the stomach, sleep issues, shortness of breath, fatigue and eventually, behavioral issues.
In fact, stress can be dangerous to one's health, Kelly said. When a person is stressed, he or she "gets too much cortisol circulating in the body, and that's a stress to all (the) organs."
According to a analysis of data from the National Study of Daily Experiences and reported in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HealthBeat, how people react to stress can affect their long-term health.
"People who reported being emotionally reactive were 30 percent more likely to report chronic health conditions 10 years later," said Penn State Professor David Almeida, who analyzed the data. Additionally, people were more reactive to stress that involved their family.
People who are feeling minor stress should "get away from the situation—try to take a break. And, if possible, engage in some sort of physical activity," Almeida said. This provides a temporary fix.
Nevertheless, some stress stems from a deeper place. Kelly offered the following four steps to find the root of a stressful situation and combat negative feelings throughout the season:
1. Name the feeling. Once someone has identified the symptoms of his or her stress, that person should name the feeling behind the stress, as well as the cause. The loss of a close friend or relative can often be a stressor.
People can say, "I'm feeling sad because this holiday reminds me of, you know, Aunt Betty or Mom or my favorite dog, and I miss them," according to Kelly. "Once you name the feeling and you know what it's about, it empowers you because then … you can celebrate Mom. … Instead of just sadness, you can find a way to be grateful for those good things (they) brought into our lives."
2. Bring the feelings down a notch with self-talk. Ask yourself, "How big is this feeling relative to what's happened here?" Kelly explained. "Is there another way to understand this big feeling? Is there an alternative feeling I can have about this? Is it catastrophic?"
Whatever the stress in the environment, people should think through their responses instead of just reacting, she said.
"Being mindful, in fact, includes the body because there is a body attached to the head. It means breathing with some deep breathing—what I call belly breathing," she said, adding that people should "stretch in the moment"—stretch their legs in front of them if they're sitting down, for example. "Ground yourself that you're here. You're here in 'now' time."
3. Get support. "Be around naturally supportive people," said Kelly. "Sometimes it's not family; it's friends. … Even if they are far away, you can picture and recapture in your mind the pleasant experiences that you've had with those supportive people."
4. Practice clean and clear communication. "There are always going to be people in our environment who are prickly, who are non-empathetic, and who are maybe even trouble makers"—and it's especially stressful when they're family members, Kelly said. "It's not a time to rehash the past with these people."
Instead, put yourself in their shoes and be empathetic. These people are usually very conflicted about how to express what's inside of them, Kelly said. "If you can understand that, then you don't have to take it personally."
She also advises people to pay attention to expectations and to find something amusing or interesting about each person to focus on.
"The bottom line in all of this is to remember that we have choices, and that mitigates the sense of helplessness" that stems from stress, Kelly said. "We can leave the party; we can change the subject; we can smile instead of scowl."
People who feel they've reached a breaking point—when the stress starts interfering at work, at home and with friends—should consider calling a mental health professional such as a psychologist, Kelly said.
"I do think that we are all obligated … to pay attention to ourselves," she said. "(It's) the idea that one can know when one is stressed by looking at your behavior (and checking) your feelings."
Kelly can be reached at 310-472-4346.