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Set Realistic Expectations to Ease Holiday Stress

The perfect holiday celebration often includes the perfect decorations, the perfect meal, perfect gifts, perfect centerpieces and the perfect blend of family and friends.

What often ends up happening is a perfect amount of stress, anxiety and general overwhelm.

"The bar is always set very, very high, much higher than we should be setting it," said Holyoke Medical Center (HMC)’s Manager of Partial Hospital and Outpatient Behavioral Health Programs Baxter Chandler.

"Often the ‘perfect’ settings are also expensive. People feel tremendous amounts of pressure to buy gifts, prep for social events. Just being with family can be stressful for some people," he said.

Between November and February, most people are already dealing with regular stressors, which may include job stress or unemployment, financial worries or concerns about family members and loved ones’ health. Others may already be struggling with anxiety, depression or addiction issues, he said.

"Holidays can also be major triggering events for grief, putting the spotlight on recent losses, as they tend to re-open wounds," said Chandler.

While some people deal with stress better than others, most people can benefit from working on their coping skills to help keep stressful events, such as these during the holiday season, in a more manageable place, he said.

"It’s important to personalize your stress management plan or strategy, but in general, have reasonable expectations," he said, emphasizing that maintaining one’s regular healthy habits can make a big difference. "Make sure you get enough rest, plenty of sleep, keep hydrated, eat good meals and don’t overeat. Watch your alcohol intake. Don’t overextend yourself, learn to say no to things, or prioritize the things you want to do," he suggested.

For people dealing with grief, or those who don’t celebrate winter holidays, Chandler suggests acknowledging one’s feelings, honoring the person, loss or situation in an appropriate fashion, perhaps developing new traditions or new ways to enjoy the holiday season.

If one’s usual stress coping mechanisms aren’t working, HMC can help. Through its Outpatient Behavioral Health Service, highly trained psychotherapists offer one-on-one sessions for as short or long a term as is needed.

For those with more acute issues, such as addiction, severe depression or anxiety, HMC hosts a Partial Hospital Program offering group-based treatment focusing on mental health and addictions. For more acute mental health issues and for those who require psychiatric hospitalization, HMC’s Inpatient Psychiatric Service (M5) offers short-term inpatient treatment.

In addition, Chandler said, keep a close eye on those New Year’s resolutions, which can also increase stress.

"Again, it gets back to expectations and we tend to set ourselves up for failure. When we fail, we feel bad and when we feel bad, we return to habits that make us feel better. It’s kind of a vicious cycle," he said.

Chandler encourages people to set realistic goals, beginning with small steps towards accomplishing larger goals, such as weight loss.

"Coming right off the most indulgent season you can’t just start eating salads January 2nd," he said. "Set a goal to exercise twice a week, and by mid-year, be walking two miles/day, three times/week for instance. You’ll feel better about yourself and if you haven’t met that huge goal, it’s not a huge letdown."

To make a counseling appointment at HMC’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services, call 534-2698.