Lower expectations for stress relief over holidays: Psychologist

By Greg Higgins
December 20, 2017 - 12:15pm Updated: December 20, 2017 - 1:05pm

The holiday season is supposed to be one of cheer and joy for most, but for anyone grieving the loss of a loved one or those with anxiety, this can be the toughest time of year for them.

According to Dr. Wayne Schlapkohl, a psychologist at mental health and addiction with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, there are two very different causes of depression during the holidays.

Schlapkohl said the more obvious cause is from those who are isolated or going through their first holiday season without a loved one who has recently passed. He added the less obvious one is stress and anxiety from the expectations people put on themselves during the season.

“People put a lot of ‘should’ on themselves,” Schlapkohl said. “They feel they should get the tree up and decorated by a certain time or they should spend a lot of money on presents and that puts a lot of stress on them. If that is the problem then part of the solution is to let go of some of those expectations.”

The doctor added people who feel high anxiety or stress during the holiday season will often feel much better if they take their time to decorate the tree with their family, even if it is a few days late and if they stay within their budget so they aren’t stuck with a lot of debt in January.

Schlapkohl said it can be particularly stressful for those hosting family dinners. His advice to those people was to take all the help they are offered and don’t be afraid to ask.

“If someone says ‘can I bring a dessert’ or ‘can I bring a salad’ let them do that. If you have a young relative who might be proud to answer the door while you’re basting the turkey, then assign them that job. Recruit other people to help too,” he said.

Schlapkohl said guests often don’t care as much as hosts think they do about how well the house is decorated and they are more than willing to help out if asked. He added guests are there to enjoy good company and a fun night. If the host appears stressed and won’t accept any help, it could make for an uncomfortable environment.

As for those grieving the loss of a loved one, Schlapkohl said there are many ways to help cope with the loss, but the most important is to embrace the feelings instead of fighting them.

“Everyone grieves differently,” Schlapkohl said. “Some people are going to be sad and that is completely understandable, but some people aren’t going to be said and they shouldn’t feel guilty about that.”

The doctor said for those feeling sad or lonely, they should put some thought into doing something special for their loved one during the holidays.

“Many people will try to somehow commemorate the passing. I’ve talked to several people who will set a spot at the table for that loved one and they’ll have a few minutes where they’ll share special stories about that person. Others might find that awkward so maybe they can light a candle for their loved one.”

One thing Schlapkohl advises those who are feeling particularly down, is not to isolate themselves. He said even if the person doesn’t think they will make for good company, isolating oneself with their grief will only make it worse.

He added those who completely isolate themselves can tend to turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, which he said is one of the worst ways to deal with grief.

The doctor said anyone without close friends or family should try to get out and enjoy the events during the holidays around the community.

He said he hasn’t noticed an increase in suicides or attempts during the holiday season, but advises anyone with those types of thoughts to contact the health authority or various other support groups. He added anyone fearing a loved one is having those thoughts should ask them in a caring way.

“It used to be a belief that if you said to someone ‘You have been down so much lately I am worried that you might be thinking of hurting yourself’ that it might plant the idea, but it’s not true. It actually reduces the risk if people are willing to ask in a nonjudgmental way," he said.


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