The holidays are a joyous time of year with family and friends, but for those living with chronic illness or caregiving for someone who is ill, the cheer can be hard to come by. From managing symptoms, doctor’s appointments and treatments to dealing with added stress during the holiday season – it can often be overwhelming. However, recognizing that these feelings are common and creating an actionable plan can help families manage their stress to enjoy this special time of year better. We will explore a few steps that could assist you in achieving balance amidst all of your responsibilities.

The difference between regular and chronic stress

Everyday stress is caused by stress hormones that surge to keep you safe in dangerous and heightened situations – for example, falling down the stairs or interviewing for a new job. You need to be on high alert and react quickly. Regular stress can cause physical effects such as a stomach or headache, fatigue or anxiety that generally resolve within a few hours or days.

Alternatively, chronic stress occurs over weeks, months or years due to continuous stressors such as being in debt, serving as a caregiver for an ill relative or working a high-pressure job. When experiencing chronic stress, your body keeps your stress hormones high and imbalanced. Unlike typical stress, the physical effects of chronic stress do not resolve quickly and may cause long-term issues.

Effects of chronic stress

Chronic stress has adverse psychological and physical effects that drastically impact quality of life. Some common symptoms are:

  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in social behavior
  • Lack of focus
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • High blood pressure and heart rate
  • Irregular heartbeat

Dr. Rajita Siinha, director of Yale Medicine’s Interdisciplinary Stress Center, noted that not all of these symptoms appear in every individual, but having three to five of them could point to chronic stress.

Over time, unresolved stress can cause mood and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, hypertension, obesity and arthritis.

Holidays can increase stress

As much fun as the holidays can be, they are very stressful for many people. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 89% of Americans experience stress from concerns like lack of money, family conflict and lack of income.

People who celebrate non-Christian holidays also report being stressed because they feel left out from holiday recognition, and some fear that they may be discriminated against for practicing a different religion or participating in cultural events.

Arthur C. Evans Jr., Chief Executive Officer of the APA, stated, “At this hectic time of the year, it is important that people take care of their mental health, especially in communities whose members feel disproportionately burdened or excluded from what is traditionally considered the holiday season.”

While experiencing holiday stress, it is easy to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. About 21% of respondents reported isolating themselves, 16% reported adopting unhealthy eating practices, and 13% reported relying on substances such as nicotine or alcohol.

Unfortunately, dealing with holiday stress on top of chronic stress can aggravate existing symptoms and lead to serious physical effects such as hospitalizations.

Tips for managing holiday stress

  1. Accept imperfection

Many people want the holidays to be perfect for their family and friends. However, inevitably, things sometimes work out differently than we plan. Part of managing stress is accepting that things won’t always work as we want – keeping an open mind and going with the flow.

  1. Don’t be afraid to say “no”

Many people are dealing with multiple requests and responsibilities. Instead of taking on every ask from your family, don’t be afraid to prioritize your time and politely say “no” to things you cannot support.

  1. Keep healthy habits

Remember to keep your healthy habits and routines intact during the holiday season. Continue to exercise, sleep and eat well, and get fresh air and sunshine. If you don’t have time to do everything you would normally do, take time to do a few healthy habits. For example, if you don’t have an hour to go to the gym, take a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood. Every little bit helps!

  1. Ask for help

If you have difficulty managing your responsibilities, don’t be afraid to ask other family members and friends for help. If you are responsible for cooking a holiday meal, consider sending a family member to the store to buy the ingredients. Or, ask other people to decorate while you handle other tasks. This will help relieve pressure on you and help you preserve your mental and physical health.

Home care services can help

One option to help relieve stress during the holiday season is using the services of a home care provider. Respite care – intended to give family caregivers a break from the day-to-day demands of caring – can allow time for holiday planning, connecting with other family members and travel. It can also aid in preventing burnout and maintaining daily routines for the care recipient.

Another option is personal care – coordinated care in your home to promote, maintain and restore health and minimize the effects of illness and disability. This type of care typically caters to seniors, new and expectant parents and those who need a little extra help. Personal care services can help reduce isolation and depression, help with meal preparation and light housekeeping tasks, among other activities.

Learn more about how Maxim’s services can help: Homecare over the Holidays.

During the holiday season, it is essential to be mindful of the impact of chronic stress on our physical and mental health. As family caregivers and those living with chronic illness can attest, acute sickness or a worsening of symptoms can add to the pressures associated with putting together celebratory meals, buying gifts, and managing extended family dynamics. Remember to practice self-care to address these additional stressors – get enough rest, make time for yourself and stick to a manageable routine. Additionally, having a plan that includes home care services can assist you in completing necessary tasks that could add more stress during this special time of year. Look up your local Maxim Healthcare Services office today and find out what services are available near you.