In our new series, From Dr. Frock’s Desk, we sit down with Dr. Frock to gain a psychiatrist’s perspective, anecdotes, and tools on a variety of topics. This month, we are talking about surviving the holidays: how to navigate the stress that the holidays can bring.
What kind of things seem to cause stress around the holidays?
To start, traveling is hard. If you’re part of a big family, you might find yourself spending a lot of time in a confined space with people you don’t have the best relationships with. The obligation to attend large family reunions or gatherings with people you don’t stay in close contact with, and whose values may differ from yours, can bring a lot of dynamics into play and bring up emotional triggers for everyone involved.
In addition, the holidays are a time that most of us associate with family, so it becomes hard not to think about those who aren’t with us anymore. This can raise a lot of grieving emotions on top of what has already been mentioned.
Over the holidays, it seems that feelings can be magnified for those who are having a hard time.
Absolutely. Think about the habits that make up your baseline that are being disrupted; from traveling, to changes in your sleep patterns, to eating and drinking differently, to not exercising as much as usual.
In addition to the grief aspect I’ve already mentioned, I also find that folks tend to get a lot of anticipatory anxiety as the holidays approach. We can’t help but think about disagreements that emerged in the past and the likelihood they could happen again.
Do you have some tips to help cope with all of that during the holidays?
Setting clear boundaries for family gatherings can be a great way to minimize conflict and emotional triggers. Like no politics, religion or money, and being clear about conversations or activities you’re not willing to engage in. We can also set boundaries for ourselves – consciously remembering that we can choose what to get upset about. You know Uncle John is going to say some crazy stuff, but you can choose whether you want to light that fire with him or not.
Also find ways to anchor yourself by taking care of your baseline self-care. If you’re a runner, bring some cold gear with you and make that run happen.
Can you tell us about S.A.D., what it stands for, what to look out for, and any strategies to help cope with it?
S.A.D. stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. “Seasonal” is what it sounds like. “Affective” is just a more academic way of speaking about someone’s mood. And then “disorder” implies that it’s a diagnosable condition.
We go from summer where the light is bright, we’re outside doing active things, to fall where it starts getting cold out, the sun is setting earlier, and you’re getting legitimately less sunlight in the fall and winter months. So it starts in September and builds for a few months, and can become something like an actual condition with symptoms including: like feeling less motivated, changes in appetite (often eating more), being less active and feeling sluggish, and not enjoying things that we used to.
Nashville is very unique in that it’s the furthest east major metropolitan area in the Central Time zone, so we can really be affected by S.A.D. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that we should be in the Eastern Time zone. In the winter, the sun starts setting before 4pm, which leaves most office workers not getting enough sunlight and it can cause a vitamin D deficiency. This is actually much more significant in Nashville than in other places I’ve worked.
Fortunately, it’s very treatable. There are some medication options, folks can also find some benefit with Vitamin D supplementation, and using a light box from mid-September through February can be helpful for many people. Using the light box can trick out brains into thinking we are actually getting more sunlight than there is outside.
Key takeaways for surviving the holidays with minimal stress:
- Try to keep to your routine as much as possible.
- Set clear boundaries with yourself and others.
- Get outside in the sun as much as possible.
- Know that you’re not the only one struggling.
- Give yourself some grace.