How to maintain a healthy mind and keep stress at bay during the holidays

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The season of joy often also heralds a season of stress.

There are activities to attend, the house to clean, food to cook, and, of course, gifts to purchase.

These pressures can add to stress and affect your mental health.

Keith Stowell, chief medical officer at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, and Kelly Moore, director of the Center for Psychological Services at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, discuss some practical tips that can help minimize holiday stress.

What contributes to holiday stress for adults?

Stowell: As social obligations and activities increase, so do stress levels. Some people find interacting with family members or colleagues stressful, while others may be grieving the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, financial stressors can be significant, especially if people are not in a position to purchase gifts for friends and loved ones when there is a seeming cultural obligation to gift giving at this time.

Moore: As we know, the impact of the pandemic is still being felt in many different ways.

During the holidays, there may still be folks who are not able to spend time together due to illness and lingering fears about exposure to COVID-19, as well as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus outbreaks that are occurring.

What are some signs that you or someone you love is getting overwhelmed?

Stowell: Watch out for difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite, as well as emotional changes, such as sadness, anxiety, irritability, and impatience.

If you have existing mental health problems, are they getting worse?

Moore: If you have youth in your life that you are concerned about, watch for changes in behavior such as increased clinginess, frequent reassurance seeking, and withdrawing from activities that they previously enjoyed or completed with ease.

I also always encourage parents to take a look at their child’s phone or tablet every once in a while to get a sense of the content they are consuming.

What can people do to alleviate stress?

Stowell: Tactics include physical activity, sleep, and meditation. Make time to do something that brings you joy.

Connecting with others—whether via text, phone or in-person—to share challenges is a great way to relieve stress.

Remember to give yourself a break: You don’t have to adhere to your diet 100% of the time or find the “perfect” gift for someone. If needed, therapy can also be helpful.

Moore: Stress is an inevitable part of life, so the first thing people can do is focus on their wellness, which is about accepting that stress can be something we can get through with the right support.

Finding routine and predictability in your life is a great way to alleviate stress. Watching reruns of shows you enjoyed, having a cup of tea every day, or creating a playlist of songs that bring you peace are just some ways to alleviate stress.

What is the best way to talk to loved ones about stress without stressing them out?

Stowell: If you’re worried that someone you care about might be stressed or overwhelmed, you can have a discussion with them about your concerns.

Approach the conversation in a nonjudgmental way and consider offering to help if you have the capacity to do so.

For example, you can say, “I’ve noticed you have seemed overwhelmed lately with everything going on for the holidays. Is there something I might be able to help with?”

Suggest helping with tasks that can be social, like wrapping presents together or cooking for a family meal, as a companion activity will allow you both an opportunity to relieve stress together.

Moore: Don’t be afraid to ask and when you do ask, point out what you are noticing that may help them to see that others do look out for them and care for them. If someone doesn’t want to talk, let them know you are someone they can talk to when they are ready.

And then, actually, listen! You don’t have to try to fix anything necessarily. Sometimes, all people want is for someone to sit and listen to them without judgment.

If you know someone in crisis, contact The New Jersey Hopeline, the state’s 24/7 peer support and suicide prevention hotline (855-654-6735), which is operated by the Rutgers National Call Center at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about natural food supplements that may help relieve anxiety and FDA-approved mental health drugs that may help treat Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies that vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms, and results showing Omega-3 fatty acids could protect memory in healthy older people.