GriefSpeak: Holiday Stress Tips for Grievers helps us all

By Mari Dias

According to the Holmes—Rahe Stress inventory (1967), which lists 43 life events with a corresponding stress point value level in order to measure your level of stress, you will garner 12 points just for holiday gatherings.

Yes, holidays cause stress for a host of different reasons. Add holiday preparation to your daily juggling of activities and you may experience stress overload. Stress is a part of our “hurry up” society where we become overwhelmed with too much incoming stimulation. The fight or flight response is alive and well for those of us who wait in long lines at the cash registers or wake early for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The holiday season is fraught with a frenzy of activity – gift purchases, food preparation, and decorations.

For grievers, it’s a reminder of a finite or non-finite loss. A finite loss includes the loss of a family member whose place at the holiday table remains empty. A non-finite loss is the “ongoing sense of guilt” (Bruce & Shultz, 2003) associated with a non-death loss: a job, a marriage, a disenfranchised child.

Social media and television commercials paint a joyous season of love and laughter. When we feel anger rather than joy, sad instead of love, we feel guilty. All these emotions alone or combined are a recipe for stress and anxiety. Anxiety can be a physiological reaction to stress. We may experience high blood pressure or blood pressure spikes, digestive issues, sleep impairment, headaches, shingles, and heart palpitations. Oftentimes our attempts to ameliorate these symptoms includes the use of alcohol and drugs. These are not only ineffective but may exacerbate the symptoms. Here are a few effective methods to deal with holiday stress.

1. Give yourself permission. In our quest to be perfect and to do everything “right” we invite stress. Give yourself permission to take time, take a breath. Inhale, exhale and breathe. Do your gift shopping during the slow shopping times, usually 5-7pm.

2. Slow down. The popular method of mindfulness encourages us to stay in the moment, rather than focusing on the past and the future. Give yourself permission to leave the wrapping or the dishes for 20 minutes and use one of the many mindfulness/meditation apps for smartphones. You may also do a bit of yoga, take a short walk, or listen to soothing music. (having a pet is a bonus – by petting your dog you both release oxytocin – the “feel good” hormone that will be mutually beneficial.

3. The use of aromatics (particularly lavender), light jazz, salt lamps and an adult coloring book can calm the stress beast very quickly.

4. Take care of yourself. Stress breaks down your immune system and will wreak havoc. Eat small, high protein food and snacks 4-6 times a day. Find your favorite method to unwind before bedtime. Avoid watching television in bed.

5. Stay away from excessive use of wine or sleep aids.

6. If you are grieving, give yourself permission to grieve during the holidays. You will hear many well-meaning individuals give you advice that angers you. If this is the year of “firsts” after the death of a loved one, prepare yourself for the onslaught of tears. (Research indicates that tears are self-soothing and contain cortisol, a stress hormone, so as you cry you are releasing stress.) Follow the steps outlined above. Some choose to set an empty place and raise a glass in celebration of a life well-lived.

7. Repeat. Take care of yourself. Make your self-care a priority, which provides you with the health and wellness to enjoy the holiday season.

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to: