Coping with Holiday Stress in Healthcare

It's The Holidays, Let The Stress Increase

Chances are, you either relish or dread the holiday season. You’re not alone. Despite all the Christmas carols, twinkling lights, and ugly sweaters, the holidays don’t necessarily fill people with great joy. In fact, holiday stress is a major problem for many, especially those who work in healthcare and are often unable to take time off. What is it about stress during the holidays that sets us off, and what can you do to make the most of this time of the year?

Work is the Greatest Stressor Year Round

The American Psychological Association conducted a study on people’s emotions during the holidays and found that in general, people feel that the holidays do not cause additional stress. Only 38% of people say their stress increases during the holidays while 54% say there is no difference compared to the amount of stress they feel during the rest of the year.

It may come as no surprise that the greatest cause of holiday stress is work. Regardless of the extent to which people buy gifts, spend time with family, decorate and worship, 56% of those surveyed say that work is the greatest source of stress during the holidays.

Work tops holiday stressors because of its impact on holiday celebrations.

  • 34% say worrying about work obligations has a significant impact on their holiday stress.
  • 31% worry they will not be able to get enough time off from work.

Besides Work, What Causes Holiday Stress?  

  • Time: 67%
  • Money: 62%
  • Commercialism: 53%

Nevertheless, retailers and advertisers insist that it is the season of giving. Having to host the perfect holiday can create enormous pressure to decorate, cook, wrap and party – all on top of daily work and family schedules. Jolly music aside, most people have mixed feelings about the holidays. They believe they should be happy when in fact the preparations make them feel stressed and fatigued.

Emotions run the gamut during the holidays. During the holidays people ranked the emotions they most often feel as follows:

  • Happy: 78%
  • Love: 75%
  • Fatigue: 68%
  • Stress: 61%
  • High spirits: 60%

How to Cope with Holiday Stress

The best way to cope with holiday stress, or any other type for that matter, is using a cognitive strategy that Harvard Medical School and others call a “shifting set.” It’s the the ability to shift “cognitive strategies to respond to changes in our environment.” It requires the cognitive flexibility to shift one’s attention from one task to another at a rapid rate as circumstances change.

Shifting set is a complex combination of executive functioning tasks. It requires managing time, being attentive, switching focus, planning and organizing and remembering details. The increased number of responsibilities and scheduling details created by the holidays can make the brain’s prefrontal cortex to go into “overdrive” as Harvard says. It takes shifting set to cope with it all.

So what are we supposed to do? The doctors at Harvard suggest the following:

  • Evaluate how you spend your time.
  • Decide what the holidays mean to you.
  • Keep realistic expectations for the holiday season.
  • Remember that basically, the holidays are just another time of year, not the
    “end-all, be-all”.

There are other successful strategies to deal with holiday stress. Choose the ones that work for you easily. There’s no need to add additional stress from trying to cope with stress!

  • Eat healthy food and exercise. Parties come and go and you may eat special holiday foods, but a foundation of good food and exercise will make you feel better overall. A diet made up solely of high sugar, high fat foods may make you feel bloated and lethargic.
  • Sleep. Don’t make sleep the poor step-sister of holiday celebrations. The more healthy sleep you get the more your mind and body can rest and rejuvenate to cope with stress.
  • Avoid emotional traps: You know by now what your emotional triggers are during the holidays. Whether it is a person, place or thing, avoid them. There is no need to face emotional upheaval every holiday season.

In addition, the American Psychological Association recommends adopting two helpful strategies:

  • Have a healthy conversation: Encourage your family to have healthy conversations that express gratitude and thanks for what you have. They may help to avoid heated, confrontational situations. Plan activities that may foster good humor like games, reviewing photo albums or looking at family movies and videos.
  • Seek support: Don’t swallow your feelings. The best way to cope with them is to talk about them. You can talk to friends, family members or find professional support. The important thing is to get your feelings out in the open so you can work through them.

As you prepare to go through the holidays, remember what the doctors at Harvard Medical School said. It’s not the “end-all, be-all”, it’s just another time of year. Eat well, sleep well and keep it all in perspective. It will be 2024 before you know it.

Deborah Chiaravalloti is an award-winning writer and former hospital executive. Her insider experience helps healthcare clients launch medical procedures, products including artificial intelligence software and knowledge sharing platforms. Deborah writes websites, blogs, opinion pieces, and marketing strategy for elder care, health care consumerism, revenue cycle management (RCM), and the business of healthcare. Her printed pieces have been published and her radio shows syndicated nationally.

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