Ah, the holidays. Families gather; cold weather prevails; light dwindles; routines are rearranged, yet good cheer is generally expected. The time of year that can be a source of great pleasure can also bring a good amount of pressure.
Love Buzz asked Rochester, NY-based psychiatrist, Alice Tariot, MD, to help us understand holiday season stress and give us some tips on how to help ourselves and our partners effectively manage it.
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Love Buzz: Why have the holidays come to be associated with heightened stress levels?
Dr. Tariot: The holidays are a complicated time and raise different emotional issues for different people. For some people, the holidays signify a period of joy and celebration, but many people also have some sort of negative association to the holidays, often related to old unresolved issues from childhood or disappointed expectations of the holidays from past and present relationships. For many, divorce or non-traditional family structures pose complicated questions about who should celebrate with whom and when. For young couples, there is pressure to celebrate with parents and wishes to establish your own traditions about the holidays.
The pressures of modern day life to do everything faster and with fewer resources, including less money, add to the emotional stress of the holidays.
Love Buzz: The combination of the cold weather and fewer daylight hours seems fairly depressing, too. How does Seasonal Affective Disorder work? What are some remedies?
Dr. Tariot: When seasonal depression was first discovered, it appeared that certain people would only get depressed in the winter and it became evident that there is a relationship between the sun, melatonin production and depression. Many of those people noted an improved mood when they exposed themselves to bright light in the mornings (10,000 lux or more).
There is also evidence that for any psychiatric disorder that gets worse in the winter, exposure to bright light can improve symptoms somewhat. However I have noticed that most of the time, people also need standard psychiatric treatment including both psychotherapy and medication in addition to phototherapy. In general the use of lights or phototherapy should be supervised by a psychiatrist.
Love Buzz: How can a partner help someone who is anxious or depressed, especially during a period of heightened stress where the other person is dealing with his/her own issues, too?
Dr. Tariot: A partner can be helpful in pointing out the seasonal pattern, encouraging treatment and remaining optimistic about the prognosis for a recovery with treatment. Partners can also help by educating themselves about seasonal depression and other forms of depression.
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It's helpful to just identify the things that are going on in a relationship i.e. both partners are worn and exhausted by whatever—work, family, illness, relationship problems, changes in sleep.
Next it's helpful to identify some brief periods of time to take turns listening to each other about what each person is struggling with. Some couples find that sharing a journal where they write back and forth to each other is helpful during busy, stressful periods.