For some, the holiday season is a time of happiness and celebration, and for others the holiday season can cause serious stress. Even the most festive people around us may exhibit signs of stress. In order to enjoy the holiday season, it is equally necessary to maintain good mental health.
Whether you are recovering from mental illness, or trying to balance a relationship with food, alcohol or other substances, it is important to understand the different stress types that could result in an unhealthy trigger.
Stress is often framed as a thought process, and a negative one at that, but it also involves a physiological response to positive or less positive situations. During stressful times, certain systems in the body are activated to help us manage the upcoming situation. There are two different types of stress to be aware of:
Eustress: Eustress, also known as positive stress, is generally short term, and in response to specific events (i.e. that holiday party you’ve been looking forward to, going on a winter vacation). During periods of eustress, the body releases stress hormones that increase alertness, concentration, and brain function.
Distress: The flip side of eustress is distress, which is what people tend to think of when the word stress is mentioned. Distress can be short or long term, and is associated with negative events or emotions (i.e. losing a job, the loss of a loved one, worry, or discomfort). Distress can occur in response to a single event or after an accumulation of un-managed stress and can result in physical or mental illness.
Balancing thoughts, feelings, and events associated with the holiday season while maintaining a healthy level of stress can be a challenge. Recovery communities often discuss the challenges associated with holidays and how to overcome them. One of the first steps in managing eustress and distress is identifying the signs, and knowing when stress is no longer productive or pleasant.
Now knowing the signs of different stress types and knowing that the line between eustress and distress can be blurred there are fortunately many things that one can do to maximize eustress and minimize distress. Here are a few types of stress relief to try this holiday.
1. Make Sure You Get Enough Rest: It can be a challenge to recall goals and reasons why those goals were set in the first place when mental energy is lacking. It is easier to turn to old, sometimes problematic behaviors, when the mind is running on little to no sleep.
2. Remember HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired): In Alcoholics Anonymous, the acronym HALT provides insight into situations where people may be more susceptible to influence, or engagement in problematic behaviors. Being aware of when you might be more likely to act in negative way, can help prevent those bad habits from happening. The HALT acronym specifically talks about when people have mental energy, so it can be used for anything from trying to get along with relatives to drinking an undesirable amount of alcohol, or engaging in behaviors that lead to inadequate nutrition.
3. Be Selective About Your Plans: Attending events can be fun, improve mood, and provide support and socialization. However, overextending yourself, or attending events that might put your health goals at risk, requires reflection about whether that event is a good idea for you. Make yourself a list of everything you hope to do this season and plan from there.
4. Enlist Support From a Friend or Family Member: Talk about the stress that you’re experiencing with those who are closest to you. If you have concerns about a specific situation, try to have a support person with you who can help keep you on track with your goals.
5. Take Time for Yourself: Remember that amidst all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, you still need time to relax and decompress, whether that is with a cup of hot cocoa, watching a holiday movie (or any kind for that matter), or going to the gym. Remember, if you don’t keep some time to take care of yourself, then you may not enjoy your time with others quite as much.
6. Take Care of Your Body: Going back to HALT, one of the best ways to take care of your mind, and reduce stress, is to take care of your body. Try to eat nutritious meals, and get exercise. As a bonus: taking care of your body will help you stay physically healthy for activities you plan on participating in.
7. Find Meetings or Support Groups: If you’re in recovery from any mental illness, find yourself a meeting or support group. A quick search online can help you find a group near you.
8. Volunteer Somewhere: Volunteering or giving to others is a major emphasis of the holiday season but did you know that it’s good for you? Volunteering is shown to help reduce negative stress.
9. Practice Acceptance of Situations and Feelings: You may not be able to change a stressor but you can change your response to it.
10. Aim for Progress, Not Perfection: Expect that all your plans may not always go according to plan.
11. Practice Mindfulness: While you’re out at your favorite holiday event. Name 5 things you can touch, 4 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
12. Practice Compassion: If you have a slip in your recovery, overextend yourself, or forego your exercise plan, don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself and ask yourself “is this how I would talk to a small child”. Determining where things went wrong, and why, will help you to be more proactive going forward.
13. Thankfulness or Gratitude: Remind yourself of what is truly important to you when you begin to feel overwhelmed by holiday ads, conversations about shape and weight, or all the things you “need” to do. If negative conversations or disagreements occur, change the tone of the conversation to something more positive, in the spirit of the holidays, like thankfulness or gratitude.
14. Seek Professional Insight: If you find yourself struggling to manage your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors (e.g. eating, drinking, smoking, anxious or depressive symptoms or other health behaviors) or feel out of control, it may be time to seek out professional help.
Erin Hopkins Stern, M.A.
Hopkins, E. (2016). Anxiety around the holidays: Stress less, celebrate more.
Mills, H., Reiss, N., & Dombeck, M. (2008, June 30) Types of stressors (eustress v. distress). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/types-of-stressors-eustress-vs-distress/
Promises Treatment Centers (2010, November 16). Tips to support recovery during the holidays. Retrieved from https://www.promises.com/articles/addiction-recovery/tips-to-support-recovery-during-the-holidays/
The 54321 technique (n.d.) Grounding techniques. Retrieved from https://www.confidentlife.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/grounding-techniques.pdf
If a psychiatric disorder or chemical dependency affects you or a loved one, please call 215-487-4100. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to perform no-cost assessments and answer questions on programs and admissions.