Although the holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration and joy, the season can also be chaotic.
Holiday shopping, parties, travel, family gatherings and church events disrupt routines and fray nerves, so experts warn that it's important to take extra precautions to maintain both physical and mental health this time of year.
Dr. Matthew Perry – emergency medicine residency director at Conemaugh Health System, based in Johnstown, Pa. – offered some suggestions to reduce the chance of a trip to the emergency room.
Be aware of the health dangers that arrive with cold weather, ice and snow, he said.
“We see some cold-weather injuries, including frostbite and hypothermia,” Perry said. “It's important to take into consideration not only the temperature, but also the wind chill. The best intervention is actually having careful preparation.”
Dressing in layers creates insulation, he said, adding that cold weather gloves, socks, boots and hats with ear coverings are recommended.
Those with heart disease or preexisting conditions should get help shoveling snow or use a tractor, Perry said.
Whether its shoveling snow or hanging outdoor holiday decorations, Perry recommends the buddy system.
“Let someone know when you are there doing any type of job in the cold,” he said.
Disrupted routines can bring a health risk.
“It's important that patients remain diligent with their medication regimen, and be careful of their diets over the holidays,” Perry said. “These things can affect preexisting conditions, especially heart disease and heart rhythms."
Trying to maintain some healthy living practices can also help reduce the holiday stress, said Angie Richard, clinical director for therapy at Croyle-Nielsen Therapeutic Associates Inc. in Johnstown.
“Be healthy. Get out and move a little bit,” she said. “You don't have to be a marathon runner, but take a walk. With all cookies and holiday food, don't forget to eat a salad. Make sure you are getting enough water. Don't overindulge every day.”
Controlling holiday stress begins with being realistic, she said.
“Holiday stress is the expectations we we have for ourselves, for other people and for the events,” Richard said. “One of the things is to just acknowledge where you are. Justify that it's OK not to be OK.”
Richard Kutz, a clinical psychologist with Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, says managing a schedule and setting personal boundaries helps people handle stress.
“The more things we try to do, the more stress goes with it,” Kutz said. “I need to plan for the holidays and plan for holiday stress just like I would plan for any other stressful situation.”
Planning includes setting limits, Richard said.
“It's nice to be invited to 15 parties, but maybe it's OK just to go to two or three.” she said.
Family gatherings with holiday traditions can bring joy, but they are often situations that also bring anxiety.
“Traditions, if they are too rigid, can feel like peer pressure from people who have already passed away,” Richard said.
“It's really hard to keep up some of those things that people did before,” she continued. “Maybe Grandma really did have the whole week to cook a big meal. The environment and culture are really different.”
While some holiday stress is normal, when it begins to affect daily living, the experts say it is important to reach out for professional help.
“Everyone has a bad day, but when you find yourself having a whole week or weeks of time when you feel exhausted, tapped out, not sleeping well; when there is something you would normally enjoy, but you are not looking forward to it at all; if you are feeling like you really can't get into the season like you normally would: Those are signals you may really want to check in with someone,” Richard said.
“Anytime you start to feel hopeless; that nobody understands; that you are cornered, and there's now way out: When those thoughts start to repeat themselves, that's a good time to reach out,” Kutz said.
Most people will be able to navigate the holiday stress and even enjoy the season if they can remain grounded, Richard said.
“Enjoy being together and remember the real purpose of the season – whatever that is for you,” she said.