Selected Podcast

Mental Health and the Holidays

The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time, but there are often pressures from family and ourselves. Preparing for the holiday season includes taking steps for your best mental health in challenging situations.

Katie Adams, Director of Mental Health, shares tips to survive the holidays with your mental health intact and the holiday blues in check.
Mental Health and the Holidays
Katie Adams, LICSW
Katie Adams, LICSW, is the Director of Mental Health Services at Harrington HealthCare System. She currently oversees mental health and therapy services in south central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut, providing services for adults, children and families including intake assessments, counseling, group therapy and medication management.

Prakash Chandran (Host): The holidays, with all the shopping, prep work, and family it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I’m Prakash Chandran and in this episode of Healthy Takeout, we’ll talk about coping with stress during the holiday season. I’m pleased to welcome Katie Adams, Director of Mental Health Services at Harrington Health Care. Katie, thank you so much for being here today.

Katie Adams (Guest): Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Prakash: You know I’m so glad we’re talking about this because the holidays always seem to creep up on me and I feel rushed to get everything done, and I’d love to hear from you some other common seasonal stresses that you see affect people year after year.

Katie: Gosh I could talk about that for a long time. You know, I think the holidays are just that perfect storm of so many things happening all at once and if you are predisposed to depressive symptoms or anxiety, and even for those of us who aren’t, it’s a really difficult time to muddle through with everything going on.

Prakash: Yeah I can imagine, I mean I know just for me, it’s the rush to get everything done. It’s also around being with people that I don’t necessarily get along with, especially on my wife’s side of the family. Can you talk about some of those factors that cause people stress year after year?

Katie: Sure, I remember reading at one point a statistic from NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, that something like, it’s better than 60% of adults report that they struggle with the holiday blues. That’s such a huge range of factors, and it’s everything from like you said to feeling rushed and the stress and the pressure, but then there’s other things like financial considerations. There are things like dealing with family members that you maybe aren’t seeing at other times of the year, and then there’s also the other side of that, people who are estranged from their families and spend the holidays isolated or alone, people who have had recent losses. So if you’ve had any type of death or divorce or loss in your family in the time leading up to the holidays, that first holiday is really hard and sometimes subsequent holidays are really hard. There’s so much going on, financial pressures, and then if you’re a parent add in everything that’s going on with our kids; it’s a lot to balance.

Prakash: Yeah, I can imagine, so let’s first talk about those who have so much responsibility and financial pressures, what are some tips that you might recommend that would help them deal with this leading up to the holiday season?

Katie: Sure, so one thing that I would say is an expression that I’m stealing from my mother is, how do you eat an elephant? It’s one bite at a time. So really breaking it down. When you’re looking at the big picture, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed. I mean I know for me, I went shopping last weekend and brought bags into the house and my husband said, oh are you getting started on Christmas? I’m like, what do you mean? Even just that was overwhelming to me and that was in the months way before Christmastime. So I think you look at, what are we doing, what do we need to accomplish, who are we shopping for, and then you break that down into different components, and then there’s even kind of emotionally preparing yourself for other obligations. You know if you know that you’re going to have to travel and spend Christmas with your in-laws and that’s something that’s overwhelming, what can you do on the front end, how can you kind of prepare yourself for those conversations. If you’re going to have things coming up at the table that are hot button topics like politics or parenting decisions or grades, college decisions, think about how you’re going to respond to that, what are you willing to share, how can you prep yourself for those interactions? And then also just setting realistic expectations for yourself. You can’t buy everyone in your neighborhood and your job and your child’s school the best of everything. You’re not going to probably be the parent that has the best gift on every teacher’s desk on December 20th. What can you do? What’s realistic? And what are you comfortable with?

Prakash: I love that you use that saying that your mom taught you because my dad also uses that all the time. I think that’s a built in parental phrase, you know tackle the elephant one bite at a time. I think that’s important, like you said really trying to be proactive and think about all of the things that you’re going to be coming up against and plan for it, so that’s really good advice. On the other side of the spectrum, I think you brought up something really important, which is the people that are alone and may not have anything to plan for during the holiday seasons. How might you recommend that they, or people that know them help them plan a successful holiday season that doesn’t give them the holiday blues that we’re talking about?

Katie: Yeah, I’m so glad that you said people that know them. I mean as a social worker I’m hard wired to say that as a community we have a responsibility, as neighbors we have responsibilities to each other, and so I think for those of us who are fortunate enough to not be in that situation, it’s our responsibility to, even just think about your little corner of the world, in your neighborhood, on your streets. Who do you know that might be alone on the holidays? Who do you know that recently had a loss or suffered a death in their family? How can you connect with those people? How can you, and that’s not big, so that’s to say that everybody needs to take on some great additional holiday stressor of oh my goodness I have to be responsible for all my neighbors. But how can you knock on a door, bring a plate of cookies, say hi, invite somebody over to your house. I think one of the nicest things you can do for another human being is hospitality and welcome them into your home. So be a good neighbor, be a good community member and I think for people who are in that situation who are maybe isolated or don’t have family members that they’re going to naturally be spending our holidays with, it’s really hard but depression in particular, but grief and loss can kind of become that hamster wheel, that self-fulfilling cycle of well I’m alone and I’m sad so I don’t feel like I’m doing anything, and because I’m not doing anything I feel alone and I’m sad and that can just go on forever. At some point you have to take a step and you have to jump in the pool a little bit, so find a good church community, find a community event, some somewhere that you can go and connect with other people. If you’re someone struggling with depression or grief, find a support group. Not to say that you have to do that forever. There are some people who are super uncomfortable with putting themselves out there in that way, but even just a few times visiting a forum like can be so helpful and can really shift the way you’re feeling all season long.

Prakash: I think that’s really good advice, and I love what you said right there about being a good neighbor and a good friend, and a good community member, especially during the holidays seasons and I also love – there’s nothing kind of – like a plate of cookies or a pie or thing of dessert that you can bring to your neighbor or someone that you know may not have family members around them that would make them feel included and make them feel welcome.

Katie: Yeah, it’s such a small gesture but it’s so significant.

Prakash: Absolutely, and speaking of desserts, speaking for myself, I also feel like there is an element of overindulgence when there is food and treats and alcohol around because it’s the holidays and we want to let loose right? And some of it may be okay we’re going to cope with the stress of the holidays with eating. So what might be a better way for us to control ourselves or to cope with the holiday stresses without resorting to overindulgence?

Katie: Yeah so first let’s say you’re not dealing with stress, you’re just surrounded by really good food and you have the good fortune of having lots of food and friends around the table during the holidays. I’m a good fan of the 80/20 rule. So behave during the week. Don’t go crazy Monday through Friday. If you know you’ve got a Christmas party every weekend in the month of December, have a salad for lunch Monday through Friday. Find some balance. I think that’s one way to kind of maintain good health throughout the season, and if you’re finding that you’re coping by maybe drinking too much or eating too much, try flipping that with healthy habits, even integrating that same day. If you know that you’re going to a cookie swap, go for a walk that morning. Get some fresh air, even if you get on the treadmill if the weather’s not cooperative. Sometimes making those healthy decisions can start the domino effect of healthy decisions. You exercise; that’s really good for you. Exercise is a great impact on your mental health particularly just light cardiovascular exercise. You’re less likely to indulge after you’ve done a good walk or a jog or even a run, and also getting enough sleep. We tend to overeat when we’re not sleeping enough, make sure you’re drinking enough water, all of those really important self care habits that again should be integrated throughout the year, but at the holidays it’s harder to remember to do them.

Prakash: Yeah and it’s especially important during the holidays as well, and I think this kind of touches on that really central theme that you’re saying about planning ahead. If you know you have a party that’s coming up or something at the end of the week, just be a little bit more proactive and healthy at the early stages of the week so you don’t feel bad when you enjoy yourself at that party. You know one of the final things I wanted to talk to you about was at the end – during the holiday season it’s kind of the end of the year, and I feel like there’s a lot of reflection and I know something that me and a lot of my friends go through is did we accomplish everything that we wanted to in the year, and I think also secretly adds a lot of stress when we didn’t necessarily accomplish those things. What’s a good framework that you tell people to use in terms of goal setting and accomplishing and reflection?

Katie: Yeah so that’s a timely question for me. I actually – I keep kind of a journal, just like long term goals, just things I jot down to kind of keep myself on track. I think that’s important and over the weekend I was looking for something to write something down quick and I happened to look at what I had set for myself in 2017 as my 2018 goals and I went “Eeek!” I didn’t necessarily get there and you have that knee jerk reaction, even those of us who are clinicians and who have good skills in that area; it happens to all of us. I think one of the most important things is again planning ahead so don’t be someone who sets that New Year’s resolution on December 31st that you’re going to totally flip your life over on its head and you’re going to be a different person at the end of the following year. That’s a sure fire way to set yourself up for disappointment and regret and to not feel good about yourself in the upcoming. So having realistic expectations of what you can do going forward but I also think it’s really hard at the holidays when you look back. You have to sort of force yourself to reframe a little bit. It can be so easy, even if you look at the past week of your life. Most of us, aren’t hard wired unfortunately. I look back at the last week and say I could’ve done that better or maybe we should’ve done this. Here’s a missed opportunity and instead, reframe that, think about what went well. What did I do right? What did I accomplish? Maybe I set a goal that I didn’t accomplish but maybe I had some accomplishment that I didn’t even know was going to happen. I mean life happens and it changes quickly and it moves quickly and part of that is just giving ourselves breaks and taking a breath and allowing ourselves to kind of be on the rise instead of trying to structure everything so much.

Prakash: What amazing advice for sure, especially as the year comes to a close or during the holidays seasons, it’s just really good to reframe that because it is really about the journey. Even if you set these goals for yourself and you don’t accomplish them, think about everything that you’ve learned along the way. We covered a lot today, but is there anything we didn’t cover that you would like us to know and take away from this conversation?

Katie: The only thing I would add is, it’s natural like I said, about 60% of adults suffer from the holiday blues or some feelings of sadness around the holidays, but I think it’s important to recognize the difference between something that’s clinical and something that’s a natural reflection or the holiday blues as we call it. So if someone is feeling like they’re struggling with depressive symptoms or anxiety, symptoms that last a couple of week that are not getting better or are really out of character for you, I think that’s when it’s important to reach out to find a trusted local therapist, someone you can talk to and make that connection because there’s also a role of treatment here and hopefully that’s not the situation that people find themselves in, but if you are feeling like you’re struggling and you’re drowning and you’re not sure how to fix that, reach out and there’s help available all over the place and take advantage of that.

Prakash: It’s definitely good to know that those resources are available. So for more information, please visit Our guest today has been Katie Adams and this is Health Takeout from Harrington Health Care. I’m Prakash Chandran, thank you so much for listening.