Coping with Holiday Stress

Coping with Holiday Stress

December 2015


Are you singing the blues while everyone else sings holiday songs? This season brings with it an expectation that we should be joyful and in good cheer, but you’re not alone if you feel more stressed, depressed or anxious during this time of year.

"The fall and winter months tend to be busy times for work and school," says Dr. Pam Sheffield, a UW professor in family medicine and clinic chief at the UW Neighborhood Belltown Clinic. "People are working too hard and forget to take care of themselves. They stop exercising and eat more junk food, which is counterproductive to feeling good during the holidays."

Four ways to cope

Financial burden, extra end of year workloads, unwanted houseguests and travel – the many demands of the holidays can put us in a darker mood during December. Luckily, there are ways to cope. Sheffield recommends these simple strategies.

  • Keep exercising to boost mood and energy. Darker days and colder temperatures make it easy to put off daily exercise. There are many indoor and outdoor physical activity options in the Pacific Northwest, so find something you can still enjoy during winter weather.
  • Eat treats in moderation. Chances are you’ll find lots of tasty but fattening treats at work and at home, and resisting them will be hard. So, enjoy yourself in moderation: Have a taste, but limit yourself to one or two, then pass the plate.
  • Get enough sleep. With holiday parties and late night present-wrapping sessions, it’s easy to miss out on your sleep. Make sure you get enough rest to enjoy the season. Most people need at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night to stay fresh and rested.
  • Take time for yourself. "By doing something positive that lifts your mood, you’re giving yourself the gift of being healthy," says Sheffield.

In addition, you may have heard that people in the Pacific Northwest tend to be deficient in vitamin D. But talk with your healthcare provider first before spending money on vitamin supplements to help with the blues. They can determine if you have a deficiency and actually need a boost.

Do you have SAD?

If your holiday blues happen year in and year out and are accompanied by physical symptoms, such as fatigue and achiness, you may have winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This disorder is thought to be caused by the effect of reduced natural daylight on brain chemicals that regulate sleep patterns and mood. It doesn’t always feel like typical depression, notes Sheffield.

"One in five people in the Pacific Northwest experience winter SAD," says Sheffield. "They are tired, sleep long hours and feel physically unwell. This can be confusing during cold and flu season, as they might feel like they’re continually coming down with a virus instead."

Light therapy, including use of light boxes and dawn simulators, can help compensate for the reduction in natural light during darker days. Most people find this type of therapy very helpful in alleviating symptoms. Before investing in these devices, talk with your doctor to confirm your diagnosis and learn the basics. Sometimes, with severe SAD symptoms, antidepressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy may be necessary.

Whether it is SAD or stress from the holidays causing you to feel more blue than usual, it is important to be proactive. "The holidays don’t have to be such a difficult time and people can learn strategies for coping," says Sheffield. "Ask for help and remember to do fun activities."

To get help staying healthy, schedule an appointment with a UW Medicine physician by calling 855-520-5151.

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