Stephanie Livingston–Psychologist


Knowles: The season to be jolly can be stressful

For many, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is a time to observe treasured religious traditions, celebrate with big family dinners, reflect on what there is to be thankful for, and make magical moments for their children.

But the holiday season also can bring stress, anxiety, sadness and depression.

"Be specific about what you can do, what you can't do," she said.

Learning how to just say no and set limits is important as is good time management "so you can get things done in a reasonable time," Houston said.

Getting help and delegating tasks also are key. Think potluck, and make sure when you're delegating, you get help with the cleanup, said Stephanie Livingston, who also has a Ph.D in psychology from Loyola. She is founder of Biopsychtech of Chicago Ltd., which has offices in South Holland, Chicago and Michigan City, Indiana.

"Pace yourself,'" Livingston said. "During the holidays, people tend to overdo, over shop over eat. Don't shop till you drop."

Keep it simple, Houston recommended.

"You don't have to have the perfect gift or have the perfect house," Livingston said.

People often fall into the trap "of comparing their situation to other people's, to the Hallmark holidays that you see on television," she added. "So, you're expected to be happy, in love, have a husband and two children and a dog. Not everybody's situation is like that. In fact, we are becoming a lonelier society. Fewer people are getting married. Single people are living alone more frequently than it used to be, so loneliness is a big problem. It can be highlighted during the holidays."

For others, "there's the expectation that families will love each other, get along well, have these idealistic and wonderful celebrations, and for a lot of people their families don't function like that," Houston said. "The expectation is just not realistic. The difference between the reality and the idealization makes some people very anxious and sad. They think there's something wrong with their holidays, wrong with their lives."

The season can be a painful period for those who've recently lost loved ones, or who lost loved ones this time of year.

To combat sadness, "gratitude works," Houston said. "When you're depressed or sad you're looking at loss and focused on what you don't have. Look at what you do have, acknowledge the things that one is grateful for."

Volunteering also can be affective.

"Giving is receiving," Livingston said. "People tend to feel better when helping others."

For parents who've lost children, it can be a particularly difficult time. Support groups can be helpful, Livingston said.

Be aware of the difference between normal sadness and clinical depression.

"Sadness is a normal part of life, and sadness, usually just simple sadness, is time limited and about a specific event," Houston said. "For people who have clinical depression, that includes more than just sadness. It includes feelings of guilt and worthlessness, a loss of interest in daily activities. There can also be sleep and appetite irregularities. Another big sign is social withdrawal, not wanting to be around people."

If you're suffering from the latter and having suicidal thoughts, it's important to get professional help right away.

And when it comes to dealing with stressful family dynamics and drama, "realize that people are creatures of habit," Livingston said. "What we did yesterday is likely what we're going to do tomorrow. So, if your Uncle Joe gets drunk every holiday and wants to put a lamp shade on his head, chances are Uncle Joe is going to do that again this year. Don't go in thinking the family is all of a sudden going to be healthy and functional. Go in with realistic expectations. Put a little fun in the dysfunction of your family, and realize that all families are dysfunctional. It's just a matter of what the particular dysfunction is."

A lot of times when you go back into family situations, it can be stressful because you're expected to play a certain role, Livingston noted.

"If you're the baby of the family, you may be the CEO of a company, but you're still treated like the baby of the family," she said. "We kind of get stuck in our ways, and if you get (mentally) healthy, that doesn't mean the family is going to want to go along with the program. If the system is broken, unless everybody's in therapy, people have to realize nothing really is going to change because you showed up for Christmas this year."

During the season, as it is throughout the year, it's important to maintain healthy physical habits. Make sure you're eating three meals a day and two snacks, getting at least eight hours of sleep and exercising every day, Livingston said.

To avoid overeating, plan how much you're going to eat. If you're going to a party, have a little salad or snack before you go, so you don't load up on the high-carb and fat foods, and limit alcohol to one to two drinks, drinking water in between, she said.

To keep stress at a minimum, plan fun and relaxing activities for yourself, whether it's yoga, a bubble bath or being in your man cave, "Take time out from the hustle and bustle," Livingston said.

It's also important to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and to choose to be optimistic instead of pessimistic.

"Thoughts affect feelings — you think a certain thing, and you feel a certain way," Livingston said. "There's a lot of research on optimists vs. pessimists. Optimists tend to have better health outcomes, mental health outcomes and physical health."

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