Resilience over the End-of-Year Holidays

The end-of-year holidays are a pleasant break from stress for many people. Yet for many others, they are not, and may even exacerbate stress. In either case, find out what is recommended for resilience and well-being over this period, here.

Author: Tyler Phillips, Research Psychologist and Lead Content Specialist

Having a healthy work-life balance is important for resilience. Whether it’s that people with higher resilience are better at maintaining this balance, or that people who make sure they achieve this balance tend to become more resilient as a result, the bottom line is that taking breaks from work and productivity is necessary for overall human wellness. Given the approaching end-of-year holidays, it may therefore be in our best interests to heed this call to rest. 

However, it’s not guaranteed that this period is actually restful, or even generally positive. In fact, for many people, it can exacerbate stress and mental health difficulties. To illustrate, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) conducted a study on holiday stress with just over 2000 people (whose answers they weighted to provide a fair representation of the USA’s demographic distribution). The study found that only 7% of respondents said that they experience less stress over the end-of-year holidays, while around 50% reported experiencing about the same stress as the rest of the year, and a staggering 41% indicated that they experience more stress around this time.

There are a variety of sources of stress that are unique to this period. There is the financial pressure to afford holiday gifts and meals for loved ones. Among those who travel for the holidays, the fact that transportation services are very busy (and usually more costly) at this time of year also represents a form of stress for many. 

Another form these stressors take is heightened interpersonal tension: Some people actually dread spending time with family members with whom they are not on the best of terms, or with whom conflicts (or cortisol, the stress hormone) may rise in a patterned way. Moreover, family time around the holidays can provoke other negative emotions - like grief. If a family member has passed in recent years, missing them at a time of reunions may make it a difficult one to endure. 

Additionally, not all employees in all sectors get a respite at this time of year. Service, retail, and healthcare workers, for example, tend to have to work long hours (in some cases, longer hours than usual) around the festive season. Then there are nutritional stressors (and the potential knocks to mental health that may accompany these diet divergences), as many respondents report being anxious about eating too much and/or drinking too much alcohol (or being around those who do) over this time.              

For those of us who may experience few if any of these stressors, or only to a light degree, we should certainly lean into the positivity that this time affords us, and exercise that resilience-enhancing perspective of gratitude. Yet, for those of us who experience many of these things, or even one or two of them but very deeply, we may first need a reminder that resilience entails responding appropriately to an ever-changing environment and set of circumstances. Whether it’s toward ease, or toward other kinds of difficulty, the end-of-year holiday period definitely provides us with conditions that are different from those we experience in the majority of our year. This may mean, therefore, that we should look at coping a little differently as well.

The APA also outlines some of the ways to cope with this holiday stress in particular. Whether we’ll still be working over this period or not, it is essential that we do not overexert ourselves and that we interrupt stress-provoking activities. This means prioritizing things that bring us enjoyment and a sense of recharge, and simplifying tasks (related to work, home, or social obligations) that we could easily complicate and lengthen. Related to this is being unafraid to say ‘no’ if it’ll invite peace into our experience. If we’re a bit too tired to attend a whole string of consecutive gatherings, or if a touchy subject at the dinner table looks like it may escalate into a conflict, we should grant ourselves the permission to decline, voice a boundary about, or remove ourselves from these situations. Removing ourselves from the noise of the mind is also helpful. Whether it’s practicing mindfulness meditation (silencing the mind), or taking walks through nature, finding moments to drop our worries and reconnect with the present moment is recommended as well.   

Although for some of us, family time can represent a stressor (or an opportunity for stressors to arise), we should also be wary of isolation around this time. Staying in some kind of contact with a source of social safety (whether that be a supportive friend or relative, or a mental health counselor) is advised. This is especially necessary if we are dealing with grief and loss over this period. An impulse to avoid speaking about a lost loved one may arise, but suppression is very rarely a helpful way to respond to difficult feelings. Instead, the APA recommends we have commemorative conversations with friends and family about this person, in which we can celebrate and reminisce fondly on the life they lived. 

This orientation to quality time is also what fuels the recommendation for coping with financial constraints around these holidays. Focusing on being present, supportive, and engaging with each other may be a more valuable offering than material gifts. Where these gifts are concerned, there are more economic ways to go about providing them, such as by opting for a ‘Secret Santa’ exchange (instead of expecting each individual to buy something for every other individual), or gifting something homemade instead of something purchased.

Finally, while these holidays are located at the end of the year, it’s important to remember that there is no finality about where we are in life when we are in the midst of them. The calendar will turn over, and new beginnings may be on their way, too.

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