Christmas holidays: Joy or despair?

Most people associate the upcoming festive season with feelings of happiness, celebrations, relaxation and an opportunity to spend time with our loved ones.

Previous research has shown that mere thinking about spending time with family and friends during the holiday season leads to positive feelings.

But, while most of us cannot wait to say goodbye to the office, this time of year can be a very lonely, stressful, and difficult time for others.

In a recent online survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted by the AARP Foundation, a shocking 30% have indicated that they experienced feelings of loneliness during the holiday season over the last couple of years.

What is equally concerning, is that more than 40% of adults indicated that in the past five years, they have worried about a family member or friend feeling lonely during the holiday period.

Furthermore, people who suffer from depression often report more feelings of anxiety and helplessness during this time. In fact, various studies have reported a significant increase in the number of suicides and suicide attempts in the days following Christmas and during the New Year period.

So, why do we see this increase in negative mood and suicides during a time that is supposed to evoke positive feelings?

‘The Broken Promise effect’
Most of us live in anticipation that the days surrounding Christmas and New Year will be filled with joy and laughter.

However, for many, these festive days sadly seem to promise more than they can deliver, leaving these individuals disillusioned and disappointed. Also, the festivities may exacerbate loneliness in those who are not able to be with their families during these times.

Excessive stress
Holiday periods are very often marked by extra stress that results from family conflicts, increased alcohol use, and excessive spending. Not all family members get along equally well and the tension between some of them usually spill over to the rest of the family.

Returning to work
Most of us can identify with the so-called Sunday evening blues. These feelings are often more excessive at the end of holiday periods. It is interesting to note that suicide rates appear to be the highest at the beginning of a work week and decline as the week progresses.

Research has also shown that there is an increase in suicide and suicide attempts at the start of a new year. For all of us, New Year means the end of the holiday season and the start of a new working year.

Although it is a time of promise and fresh beginnings, it may also lead to a sense of hopelessness, especially when previous years left the promise unfulfilled.

How does one then reduce the risks associated with stress and negative mood in the festive season?
Self-awareness, impulse control, reality testing, and moderation are key to coping with stressors and avoiding negative feelings.

The following basic suggestions may help to lift the moods and cope better during the festive season:

• We all know that a healthy body is the foundation of a healthy mind. Enjoy the festive treats, but try to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Use alcohol in moderation and make sure you continue your normal exercise routines. It is also important to relax, rest and set enough time aside to catch up with lost sleep in the festive season.

• Make sure you are in touch with your emotions. If you know that you are prone to negative thoughts and to feelings of isolation, actively plan to keep yourself busy and involve others in your life during this time. Volunteering with a charity service can foster positive feelings and open new social networks. Interpersonal relationships have proven to be one of the cornerstones of emotional well-being.

• Have realistic expectations about the outcomes of the holidays. It is unlikely that your holiday will be perfect or without any stress.

• Set a limit for your Christmas spending and leave your credit card at home when you go shopping. Over-spending will just create more financial stress for the New Year.

By Dr Karina de Bruin, Managing Director, JvR Academy

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