Ahhh, the holidays are finally here! It can be such a special time, with holiday parties, family fun, vacations and more. But if you feel more stressed than usual this time of year, experts say not to worry, you’re not alone. For some people, the holidays bring more stress than joy, and the holiday spirit is in short supply.
Resource editors spoke with two local experts about how health and happiness often go hand in hand, and what people can do to make their holiday experience as stress-free as possible. Amy Exum, LHMC, is a licensed mental health counselor and Community Health Manager for Baptist Health, and David Mishkin, M.D., is an emergency medicine specialist for Baptist Health Urgent Care, which has 25 locations across South Florida.
Amy Exum, LHMC, is a licensed mental health counselor and Community Health Manager for Baptist Health
Resource: How does a person’s state of mind affect their physical health?
Amy Exum: We know that people with certain mental health diagnoses have a higher risk of medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. We also know that people who have chronic illness are vulnerable to stress, which can progress to a mental health diagnosis. Individuals experience stress in different ways but generally it produces tightness or tension in the body, headaches, teeth grinding, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disturbances or perhaps a combination of these.
Dr. Mishkin: Our mental health and physical health are fundamentally linked. People living with mental illness are at higher risk of also experiencing a wide range of physical health concerns and chronic diseases. For example, increased anxiety and depression may result in hormonal imbalances and altered sleep cycles. This can directly affect our heart, digestion, and overall longevity.
Resource: Do you typically see an uptick in cases during the holidays?
David Mishkin, M.D., emergency medicine specialist for Baptist Health Urgent Care
Dr. Mishkin: We do. This is often due to families and friends getting together to celebrate, changes in our daily routine, and time for reflection. These emotional stressors will often also cause medical symptoms, too, and are more commonly seen in our Urgent Care centers during this time of year.
Amy Exum: Although stress typically rises during the holidays, many people try to just “get through” the season and that’s understandable. They worry that acknowledging their stress would just dampen their holiday spirit and so they wait until the new year to address their issues. In addition, many people are so busy with planning or attending holiday gatherings that self-care just gets put on the back burner.
Resource: Are Urgent Care patients ever referred to mental health counselors?
Dr. Mishkin: Mental health screening is an important part of patient care at Baptist Health and something we also perform regularly at our Urgent Care centers. If necessary, we do refer our Urgent Care patients to mental health counselors.
Resource: What are some of the most common holiday stressors for people?
Amy Exum: For many adults, the whole gift-giving-shopping-spending process tends to rank pretty high on the list. This year, the increased costs of so many different basic goods and services over the past year also means that families may have less money to spend on gifts, which can lead to financial disagreements between partners or challenges in being able to afford that “perfect gift.”
On top of that, we’re coming out of the midterm elections and still in a time of great political contention. Political discussions are often a dangerous “third rail” topic at many family get-togethers and some people may simply prefer not to attend rather than get drawn into arguments at what should be a festive time.
Holiday travel can be especially stressful, with drivers facing high gas prices and congested highways and flyers looking at long lines and the likelihood of flight delays and cancellations. Compounding the potential for stress is the uncertainty that comes with travel in the age of COVID, especially this time of year when flu and RSV are running rampant across the country.
Another common source of stress is felt by people who’ve experienced the loss of a loved one. For them, the holidays can trigger feelings of grief and sadness, especially if it’s their first time celebrating without their loved one.
Stressors can be slightly different for children. They’re experiencing a lack of structure with school breaks, and changes in routine, diet and after-school activities can lead to behavioral issues. Children are also sponges and although they may not express it, they can and often do experience their family’s stress as their own.
Resource: How do these stressors tend to affect people’s behaviors and their relationships?
Amy Exum: Although the holidays are supposed to be the “happiest time of the year,” some people might feel impatient, short-tempered or cranky, and they may find that their relationships with family and friends are strained. They might also rely on alcohol or other substances to help them cope. For children, one might see tantrums, hyperactivity, sleep disturbances or gastrointestinal issues along with an increase in disagreements with siblings or friends.
Resource: What advice would you offer patients on staying happy and healthy during the holidays?
Dr. Mishkin: The holidays can often be a stressful time for people. Some helpful tips to stay happy and healthy this time of year are to adhere to a normal sleep schedule, participate in regular exercise and a maintain a balanced diet. Speaking with a mental health counselor is also an important step to managing these feelings.
Amy Exum: First, let’s all acknowledge that it’s completely normal for our stress levels to increase during the holidays. We just don’t want them to become so overwhelming that we start taking it out on ourselves or others. My advice is to manage your expectations, prioritize what is important and know that things probably won’t go exactly as planned. Focus on what matters. Practice gratitude – researchers have found that people who practice gratitude are happier and it can also help improve relationships. Reframe your perspective by trying different things like an exercise class, breath work, a new hobby or journaling. Make time for yourself, because it’s easy to get cranky when you’re tired and overwhelmed. And while it’s great spending time with others, find time to do things that you enjoy. Give yourself time to “reset,” which we all need now and then. Finally, don’t forget the basics. Get enough sleep, eat well and engage in physical activity. There will be days when you won’t be able to follow through on it but keeping to your routine as much as possible will help reduce your stress.
Resource: What approach have you personally found to be helpful in reducing holiday stress?
Amy Exum: I make sure I have at least one or two days scheduled to do nothing, a “free day” of sorts, where I’m allowed to wake up late, wear pajamas all day, snuggle with my pets and eat breakfast for dinner if I want. I also spend time outdoors and away from phone or computer screens. Studies have shown that time spent in nature can actually improve your mental health and cognition. Being in South Florida, we’re fortunate to have “outdoor weather” all year long but even if you live in an area with snow or cooler temperatures, being outside and getting some fresh air can be restorative.
Resource: How can Baptist Health help people reduce their stress and stay healthy?
Amy Exum: We’re here to help you stay healthy and well. Stress is a normal part of life but if you’re having trouble managing your stress, reach out to a professional for help. There are many resources available to you, including mental health counseling via Baptist Health Care on Demand. Baptist Health also offers a wide variety of Community Health classes throughout the week that are available in person or online and are free to all. It’s also important to maintain regular visits with your primary care physician, as a healthy body supports a healthy mind.
Dr. Mishkin: Every year during the holidays, we see people who’ve injured themselves falling off ladders while stringing up holiday lights and decorations. Some people may need a COVID test before leaving on vacation. And others may be feeling sick and they just want to get better in time for the holidays. Our Urgent Care centers are open from 9AM to 9PM seven days a week (holiday hours may vary – please check first). Each one is staffed by Baptist Health doctors, physician assistants and nurses who are trained to deal with virtually every type of illness or injury.