Baptist health experts offer tips on how to stay happy and healthy during the holidays

Ahhh, the holidays are finally here! It can be such a special time, with holiday parties, family fun, vacations and more. But if you’re feeling more stressed than usual this time of year, experts say don’t worry, you’re not alone. For some people, the holidays bring more stress than joy, and holiday cheer is in short supply.

Resource editors spoke with two local experts about how health and happiness often go hand in hand, and what people can do to make their vacation as stress-free as possible. Amy Exum, LHMC, is a licensed mental health counselor and community health manager for Baptist Health, and David Mishkin, MD, is an emergency medicine specialist for Baptist Health Urgent Care, which has 25 locations in South Florida.

Amy Exum, LHMC, is a licensed mental health counselor and community health manager for Baptist Health

resource: How does a person’s state of mind affect their physical health?

Amy Exum: We know that people with certain mental health diagnoses have a higher risk of medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. We also know that people who have chronic illnesses are vulnerable to stress, which can lead to a mental health diagnosis. Individuals experience stress in different ways, but generally it causes tightness or tension in the body, headaches, teeth grinding, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, or perhaps a combination of these.

Dr Mishkin: Our mental and physical health are fundamentally connected. People living with mental illness are at higher risk of also experiencing a wide range of physical health problems and chronic illnesses. For example, increased anxiety and depression can lead to hormonal imbalances and altered sleep cycles. This can directly affect our heart, digestion and longevity in general.

resource: Do you usually see an increase in cases around the holidays?

David Mishkin, MD, emergency medicine specialist for Baptist Health Urgent Care

Dr Mishkin: We are doing. This is often due to a gathering of families and friends to celebrate, changes in our daily routines and time to reflect. These emotional stressors often cause medical symptoms as well and are seen more frequently in our emergency centers this time of year.

Amy Exum: Although stress tends to increase during the holidays, many people try to just “get through” the season, and understandably so. They worry that admitting their stress will only dampen their holiday spirit, so they wait until the new year to address their issues. Also, many people are so busy planning or attending holiday gatherings that self-care simply takes a back seat.

resource: Are ED patients ever referred to mental health consultants?

Dr Mishkin: Mental health screening is an important part of patient care at Baptist Health and something we perform regularly in our urgent care centers. If necessary, we refer our emergency patients to mental health consultants.

resource: What are some of the most common holiday stressors for people?

Amy Exum: For many adults, the whole process of gift-giving, shopping, and spending tends to rank pretty high on the list. This year, the increased cost of so many different essential goods and services over the past year also means that families may have less money to spend on gifts, which can lead to financial disagreements between partners or challenges in affordability that ‘perfect gift’ .”

On top of that, we are coming off the midterm elections and still in a time of great political controversy. Political discussions are often a dangerous “third rail” topic at many family gatherings, and some people may simply prefer not to attend rather than be drawn into arguments in what should be a festive time.

Holiday travel can be especially stressful, with drivers facing high gas prices and congested highways, and fliers facing long lines and the possibility of flight delays and cancellations. The potential for stress is compounded by the uncertainty that comes with travel in the age of COVID, especially this time of year when flu and RSV are running rampant across the country.

Another common source of stress is felt by people who have experienced the loss of a loved one. For them, the holidays can cause feelings of grief and sadness, especially if they are celebrating for the first time without their loved one.

Stressors can be a little different for children. They experience a lack of structure with school holidays and changes in routine, diet and after school activities can lead to behavioral problems. Children are sponges too, and although they may not express it, they can and often do experience their family’s stress as their own.

resource: How do these stressors affect people’s behavior and their relationships?

Amy Exum: Although the holidays are supposed to be the “happiest time of the year,” some people may feel impatient, grumpy or moody and may find that their relationships with family and friends are strained. They may also rely on alcohol or other substances to help them cope. Children may experience tantrums, hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, or gastrointestinal problems, along with increased disagreements with siblings or friends.

resource: What advice would you give patients to stay happy and healthy during the holidays?

Dr Mishkin: The holidays can often be a stressful time for people. Some helpful tips to stay happy and healthy this time of year are to stick to a normal sleep schedule, participate in regular exercise, and maintain a balanced diet. Talking to a mental health counselor is also an important step in managing these feelings.

Amy Exum: First, let’s all admit that it’s perfectly normal for our stress levels to rise during the holidays. We just don’t want them to become so overwhelming that we start taking it out on ourselves or others. My advice is to manage your expectations, prioritize what’s important and know that things probably won’t go exactly as planned. Focus on what matters. Practice gratitude – Researchers have found that people who practice gratitude are happier and it can also help improve relationships. Reframe your perspective by trying different things like exercise, breath work, a new hobby, or journaling. Take time for yourself because it’s easy to get cranky when you’re tired and overwhelmed. And while it’s great to spend time with others, find time to do things you enjoy. Give yourself time to “reset” which we all need from time to time. Finally, don’t forget the basics. Get enough sleep, eat well and be physically active. There will be days when you can’t follow it, but sticking to your routine as much as possible will help reduce your stress.

resource: What approach have you personally found helpful in reducing holiday stress?

Amy Exum: I make sure I have at least one or two days scheduled to do nothing, a kind of “off day” where I’m allowed to wake up late, wear pajamas all day, cuddle with my pets, and eat breakfast for dinner if I want. I also spend time outdoors and away from phone or computer screens. Studies show that time spent in nature can actually improve your mental health and cognitive abilities. Being in South Florida, we are fortunate to have “outdoor weather” year round, but even if you live in an area with snow or colder temperatures, getting outside and getting a breath of fresh air can be restorative.

resource: How can Baptist Health help people reduce stress and stay healthy?

Amy Exum: We are here to help you stay healthy and well. Stress is a normal part of life, but if you’re having trouble managing stress, seek professional help. There are many resources available to you, including mental health counseling through Baptist Health Care on Demand. Baptist Health also offers a wide variety of community health classes throughout the week that are available in person or online and are free to all. It is also important to maintain regular visits to your primary care physician, as a healthy body supports a healthy mind.

Dr Mishkin: Every year during the holidays, we see people who are injured falling down stairs while putting up holiday lights and decorations. Some people may need a COVID test before going on holiday. And others may be feeling sick and just want to get better in time for the holidays. Our emergency centers are open from 9:00am to 9:00pm seven days a week (holiday hours may vary – please check first). Each is staffed by Baptist Health physicians, assistants and nurses who are trained to handle virtually any type of illness or injury.

Tags: Amy Exum LHMC , Baptist Health On Demand , Baptist Health Community Health , Baptist Health Urgent Care , Dr. David Mishkin

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