Christmas 2013 Holiday Stress and Suicide Risk: How You Can Help

By Laurel Shaler, Ph.D. On December 8, 2013

As Christmas approaches, counseling offices can start to fill up with clients who are having a difficult time managing the stress. Stress is a problem for many people year round, but there is something about the holidays that tends to cause an increase in stress for some. It makes sense because there tends to be a lot more to be stressed about!

Dealing with traveling, spending more money, being around family…it all adds up to negative stress, also called distress. But, what is a person to do about all this stress?

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Tips for Handling Holiday Stress

Here are some tips that you can share with your clients as they prepare for this time of year:

Don’t set expectations too high. Encourage clients to rid themselves of the illusion that the Christmas season will be perfect. Setting expectations too high can lead to disappointment and frustration. Instead, setting reasonable expectations (or even low ones!) allows room for things to not go well without causing your client to become undone.

Accept that things won’t go perfectly as planned. Even if your client has fairly realistic expectations, things still won’t be completely smooth. And clients need to understand that some of that is beyond their control. Letting go of that control can lead to less stress.

Don’t over-do. Encourage clients to focus on a few areas that they can really enjoy. For example, choose one or two special events to attend. Same with gift giving and volunteer work. No one can do it all, and planning ahead can lead to a more relaxed Christmas season.

Schedule down time. Nights where your client and their family have no plans except to spend time at home. Maybe that will involve sitting in front of a fire drinking hot cocoa, watching a Christmas movie, decorating cookies or a tree, or simply sitting quietly while listening to Christmas carols. But, it could also mean spending time extra meditating on a Bible verse, praying, or writing in a prayer journal.

Combat loneliness. Sometimes people are lonely during the holiday season because they don’t have or can’t spend time with loved ones. They can be encouraged to get involved in a local church or volunteer to surround themselves with others. Focusing on others can help decrease their own loneliness.

Tips for Dealing with Family

Another area of stress for clients can be dealing with family. Clients may not get along with certain family members or perhaps they are just not used to spending very much time together. Here are a few more tips on how clients can enjoy family time together:

Plan well. Encourage clients to make sure they organize family visits. They should not be afraid to set fair, but firm boundaries. Knowing where visiting relatives will stay can help reduce tension among those family members. And if clients are going to stay with family, they should make sure it is clear what the expectations are. Do they need to bring an air mattress? Is there a “lights out” time? Some of these may sound silly, but planning ahead can lower stress and increase the chances of enjoying the family time together.

Stay away from controversial topics. In today’s society when many people live apart from their relatives, this precious time together should be spent enjoying and sharing life together. That doesn’t mean that they can’t have heart-to-heart conversations; quite the opposite because face-to-face is the best way to have those. But, words should be chosen carefully and debating or arguing should be avoided.

Be flexible. Instead of being demanding and wanting to do everything their own way, clients should be encouraged to allow family to choose the restaurant, the activity, or the movie. They should focus on being together rather than what they are doing together. They should also be forgiving and focus on not taking everything so personally.

Identifying Suicide Risk and Depression

Additionally, we know as professionals that some people experience sadness, loneliness, and relational conflict that is beyond the scope of the “holiday blues.” In that case, they will need more intense treatment focused on combatting those symptoms. As an evidence based form of psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one treatment of choice that integrates well with Christian principles. Helping clients to challenge their thoughts, journal, and problem solve are all interventions that could be utilized to help clients who are feeling particularly down at the holidays. If a client has experienced these symptoms during past holiday seasons, it is a good idea to encourage them to get started early to avoid or reduce their symptoms this year.

Finally, despite popular myth, suicide actually occurs the least in December compared to all other months during the year (CDC, 2011). That being said, we should not decrease our assessment and prevention efforts during this time of year. We should be sensitive to the fact that just because suicides decrease during December, they do still occur.

Talk Back: What have you found helpful—both personally and professionally—in managing holiday stress?

 

Laurel Shaler is a Licensed Social Worker with a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from Regent University. She currently teaches in counseling programs for Capella University, Clemson University, and Liberty University. Additionally, she writes and speaks to women in an effort to help them anchor their emotions to God and achieve abundant life in Christ. She and her husband, Nick, make their home in Lynchburg, Virginia where they are active in community and church. They love spending time with friends and family, especially their two rambunctious nephews. Laurel can be found blogging on her website at www.drlaurelshaler.com. You can connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/drlaurelshaler or on Twitter (@DrLaurelShaler).

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