Hanukkah begins Tuesday, December 16 and we are just 10 days away from Christmas. The holiday season is in full swing.
The November to December holiday Season—also known as the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s sprint—can be a magical time for children and a special time for families. Turkey with all the stuffing. Christmas trees with presents underneath. The ringing in of a wonderful New Year—how can such festive days be anything but happy times?
Yet statistically, that holiday sprint is also the time when more Americans over-indulge in alcoholic excess than any other times of the year. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the $49 billion distilled-spirits industry makes more than 25% of its profits from Thanksgiving to the New Year.
Why? Well, good cheer and celebration leads many Americans to “drink and be merry”; from office Christmas parties, to family gatherings to New Years’ Eve bashes -- drinking is on the menu for most adults around the holiday season.
But in addition to celebratory drinking, every holiday season people have to deal with the increased pressures and stress that the holidays place upon most of us. Whether we’re traveling to be with family or doing our last-minute gift buying, most people feel under pressure during the holidays.
There’s all kinds of stress this time of year: Celebration stress. Family Stress. Work stress. Shopping Stress. Financial stress.
Then there’s also the notion of the “holiday blues”; this is the belief held by many mental health professionals (although not necessarily borne out by the statistics) that depression and suicides rise during the holidays because holiday cheer only amplifies loneliness and hopelessness in people who are predisposed towards depression; that can include people who have a history of depression, who have lost loved ones or who have high expectations of renewed happiness during the holiday season, only to be disappointed.
Others think the increase in anxiety and gloominess is caused by the unavoidable stress, exhaustion, and frustration that come with preparing for the holidays.
In addition, there is also Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression that is closely related to the winter season and, therefore, seems to increase in frequency around the holidays.
If there is an uptick in depression and anxiety over the holidays, we know that depression and anxiety significantly increase a person’s likelihood to drink or otherwise self-medicate.
In my experience as the Executive Director of the Dunes in East Hampton N.Y., I’ve seen a post-holiday jump in our admissions as people who over-indulged over the holidays come in looking for help in January.
In the drug and alcohol treatment community, it’s understood that if a person is feeling out of sorts or not in a very good place, they are much more inclined to not only indulge -- but over-indulge. And we also know that this over-indulgence can take on many forms -- not just alcohol and drugs—but shopping, exercise, work, sex, gambling…almost anything.
Thus the focus is on helping people to get back to a mentally, emotionally and psychologically balanced way of living; that means teaching practical coping skills to manage stress (i.e. meditation techniques; exercise); developing healthy outlets and hobbies; making sure that a person is taking care of their dietary and sleep needs—two often very overlooked health components.
So what can you do to not fall victim to the dreaded holiday over-indulgence blues? Here are five things to do:
1. Learn how to identify and manage your stress. When you begin to feel yourself getting overwhelmed or stressed, learn how to push the “pause” button as you then take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths (as you breathe in you expand your diaphragm/belly area; as you breathe out you say the word “relax” to yourself). You’ll be amazed how this simple method reduces the stress by lowering the cortisol levels in your system. Or simply take a 10 minute walk; the physical movement can help oxygenate your brain and release stress.
2. Schedule quality down-time or “me-time” every single day. This can include taking a mindfulness walk (with NO multi-tasking allowed!); or just sitting quietly in a peaceful area and just…daydreaming. Quality time can include reading a book, exercising, meditating or listening to music -- but NO computer viewing or sensory overload!
3. Don’t over-schedule your time. We all try to juggle and multi-task, but usually that not only makes us less efficient in doing any one thing, but it also raises the stress level. So write a schedule in the morning for your day that is a REALISTIC one of what you can reasonable accomplish that day.
If you can’t complete everything on your list, carry it over to the following day. The key is to give yourself permission to do all that you can but no more than that.
4. Don’t let yourself be so hurried and harried that you forget to eat regularly. Remember to eat small healthy meals five times a day. The worst thing to do for your metabolism is to be under holiday stress and then forget to eat for long stretches. Your body then slows down its metabolism in order to store calories because it thinks you are entering a stress or fasting period.
5. Get at least 8 hours of sleep a night and use good “sleep hygiene.” If you don’t get enough sleep, the stress hormone cortisol is released; use good “sleep hygiene”: avoid stimulants and eating too close to bedtime; establish a regular bedtime routine and try to maintain the same bedtime; exercise earlier in the day; no electronics in the bedroom.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is an addictions specialist and Clinical Director of the Dunes, a holistic mind-body rehab center in Easthampton, N.Y. He is also a clinical professor at Stony Brook University's Health Sciences Center where he teaches graduate level course-work on the treatment of addiction. He is a licensed NY State psychotherapist and a clinical consultant for LICADD (Long Island Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as well as being Adjunct Faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California.