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UK psychologist has practical solutions for managing hectic holiday season

By Lindsey Piercy 

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 5, 2022) — As jolly as we all want it to be, the holiday season can also bring the not-so-wanted gift of added anxiety. This time of year demands a lot — elaborate decorations, home-cooked meals and well-thought-out gifts.

Michelle Martel, a professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, says feeling the pressure of the holidays is fairly common.

“In my clinical and personal experience, I would say most, but not all, people report increased stress around the holidays. However, only a subset of vulnerable people experiences clinical problems, such as depression and anxiety, around these times.”

The good news? There are practical ways to avoid struggling through this season. Martel has a few tips and tricks to help you beat the bah, humbug.

Stick to a routine. Or be intentional about breaking it.

During the holiday season, families are often tempted to throw away their normal schedules (as well as travel), which can lead to unhealthy eating patterns, less exercise and sleep disturbances. To the extent you can, try to maintain the semblance of a routine. That will be soothing for both you and your children — if you have them. Unless there is good reason (a one-time event, a day of traveling, etc.), I suggest sticking with at least the broad strokes of a schedule. You can always add special treats — extra screen time or a slightly later bedtime. But consistency is very important for not only maintaining good physical health but also improving mental health. If you choose to go off your routine, be intentional and communicate the plans clearly. Also, have a plan ready to deal with the consequences (early bedtime, more outdoor activities to burn sugar/energy, extra down time, etc.).

Schedule some downtime.

If running around during the holidays has you feeling frazzled, try to schedule some more downtime. Adults often forget to prioritize themselves. But remember, being irritated can undermine everything you are trying to do for your family. You will be more present and pleasant if you also take care of yourself. Taking 10 minutes after the kids are in bed to have a cup of tea can provide rejuvenation and help you stay in the holiday spirit. The same is true for children: they occasionally just need time to themselves.

Less is more.

A portrait of a professor.
Michelle Martel

Often, the things that stress adults the most are the things that are least important to the rest of the family, including children. I used to become particularly overwhelmed before elaborate holiday dinners that included endless prep time and cleanup afterward. Turns out, my family has been happier with my husband cooking lasagna the night before Christmas and quick chocolate chip waffles and bacon on Christmas morning. Consider making some changes to your holiday traditions that not only ease your load, but that might be a hit with the rest of the family.

Remember, it’s the thought that counts.

Financial pressure is a huge source of stress during the holidays. But really, thoughtful gifts count more than the number or the expense of the gift(s). There’s no need to break the bank; if you can buy (or make or write) something small you know will be sentimental to the other person, that will mean more to them than a gift that leaves you stressed about debt for months afterward. This is even more true for children than adults. They may ask for everything, but they have short memories and can’t fully comprehend prices. Several individually wrapped small gifts are often just as — or more — satisfying than larger expensive purchases.

Focus on doing nice things for others.

It’s easy to get sucked into wanting to make sure the holidays are magical for your immediate family. While that’s a nice gesture, holidays are often more memorable if you balance your traditions with encouraging your family and/or child(ren) to do something nice for others. Think about visiting a nursing home or donating toys as a way to facilitate positive holiday experiences. It will make your family more appreciative of all they have.

Change it up.

For families coping with loss during the holidays, I always recommend changing it up. If you know you can’t get through the same traditions without a loved one, do something different — start a new tradition. This will make it easier to get through the first set of holidays until enough time has passed for you to be able to consider a return to the old traditions without too much grief and pain.

Ask for help.

You don’t have to do it all alone. Ask for help from your partner, close family, extended family, friends or even a mental health professional. Many hands do make light work. It’s normal to struggle with anxiety or depression during the holidays, and new telehealth options make therapy more accessible than ever before.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.