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Categories: Behavioral Health, HopeHealth

Stress and the Holidays

Georgann O’Quinn, HopeHealth Behavioral & Mental Health Counselor

The holidays affect everyone differently, but in older people they can have a more challenging impact. Seniors are often dealing with multiple losses, which might include the death of friends or family, home relocation, health problems, or disabilities that affect their emotional states and ability to participate in holiday activities. Many seniors are single, divorced, or widowed and may have a lack of a supportive social network.

As the holidays approach, when people are supposed to be happy and joyous, we are reminded that for some, it can be a season of heightened grief or stress. During this time of year, the feelings of loss can be stronger for everyone, regardless of their age or life stressors. There are steps that can be taken for those who are dealing with life stressors, and their families, to better manage the holiday season:

Talk as a family about how you would like the holidays to be celebrated and decide what is realistic. Continuing the same holiday traditions can be comforting for some, but for others, these traditions can bring expectations that can create stress if they aren’t followed completely. Modifying traditions (or creating new ones) can be a refreshing change to take away some of the pressure to always get it “just right.”

Use the holidays as a time to invest in your faith. Worshipping with others who share your faith can be comforting – surrounded by others singing familiar hymns together and reciting prayers. At the same time, if you feel the need for a fresh perspective, then explore other celebrations and attend a different service with a friend or family member.

Find a way to explore your faith; read inspirational books or articles to provide a new perspective on what this holiday season has meant historically within your culture.

Take time to honor the memory of your loved ones by looking for ways to incorporate their memories as you celebrate the holidays. Setting an empty place at your table can represent not only those loved ones who have passed on, but also those who are unable to join you due to living far away, working, incarcerated, in poor health, or celebrating with their extended families.

When gift-giving, some people use this time to “gift” a personal or household item to others who would appreciate the history and sentiment. Others “re-gift” items that no longer fit their lifestyle, or as they down-size to simplify their lives. Making a monetary donation to a program or ministry allows you to give much needed support in honor (or in memory) of a loved one.

Reaching out to others can be a helpful way re-direct the focus from your own struggles or pain to gain a different viewpoint on how others are managing.

Know your limits, and establish boundaries with others who want you to participate in activities that you know will be too difficult for you. Let other know what you need: If you want to be included or need a ride, say so. If you prefer to spend a quiet evening home and skip a social event, then express that.

If you are experiencing a time of grief, it’s helpful to allow yourself time to mourn, and equally important to give yourself permission to experience joy during the season. Grief, by its very nature, involves a repetitive cycle. These phases include a roller-coaster of acknowledging the loss, fully experiencing the grief emotions and reactions, and adapting, adjusting to the changes in your life and re-establishing. This cycle involves movement – through repetitive phases, and as long as you are “moving” through the phases (repetitively) then you are working through the tasks of mourning, which is the foundation for healing to occur.

When planning, it helps to review expectations, and decide what, if anything, you’d like to change to prevent to reduce stress. When considering the following activities (holiday cards, meals, baking, shopping, decorating, opening gifts, visiting cemetery, going to parties), ask yourself the following 6 questions regarding each of your holiday routines:

  • Would the holidays be the same without it?
  • Is this something you want to do differently?
  • Do you do it out of habit, tradition, free choice, or obligation?
  • Is this a one person task, or can it be shared?
  • Who normally is responsible for getting it done?
  • Do you like doing it?

As an example, answering the six questions about sending holiday cards (and whether to include a “holiday letter” or personal note) will help you decide how to proceed. Consider other ideas for coping if you want to modify: shorten the list, send later in the year, ask for help addressing; skip altogether.

For your holiday meal, answering the six questions will help you consider options: Prepare as usual (or change the location, time); Invite friends / family (or eat alone); Celebrate the “big day” but on a different day to allow for flexibility with family members who have conflicting schedules. Skip the “big meal” all together, and spend the holiday meal with a shut in or at a nursing home with residents whose family lives far away.

As you set more realistic goals, remember to include what you need, and what you most value. Be patient with others who are traveling on a different holiday train than you are choosing. Ask others to support you as you choose to keep those traditions you most enjoy, and eliminate those tasks that no longer fit your lifestyle.

Tags: behavioral health, holidays, mental health, stress



HopeHealth educates its patients on the importance of having a health care home. As a primary care facility, HopeHealth’s medical team works to prevent and detect illness and the early onset of disease, provide routine physical examinations and promote overall healthy lifestyles.

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