How Mental Health Professionals Handle Holiday Stress

Friday, December 13, 2013
norman-rockwellThink the stress experts don’t stress about the holidays? Think again. Mental health professionals feel the same joy and pain as everyone else around the holiday season. But years of counseling patients how to deal with stress have helped them develop their own coping strategies. Here’s how the pros handle holiday stress:
They set realistic expectations. "I think we all have these Norman Rockwell ideas of what the holidays are supposed to be and set too high of a standard for ourselves," says Blake Haren, MD, a psychiatrist with Menninger's Comprehensive Psychiatric Assessment Service. Dr. Haren, father of two children, ages 8 and 10, says he and his wife try to "calibrate" their expectations for the holiday and not push themselves too hard. "I remind myself to see the holidays through my children's eyes. The holidays can be very magical. We have the high expectations, not the kids."
They acknowledge a less-than-ideal holiday. Menninger staff psychologist Sandy Soenning, PhD, will be working during the holidays – a reality for many mental health professionals and people who work jobs that require coverage 24/7. Dr. Soenning, who provides individual and group therapy for Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program, says sharing disappointment about being away from family and friends during the holidays is therapeutic for her patients and herself. “Just being able to say, ‘This stinks,’ out loud can be comforting.”
They practice self-compassion. Mental health professionals often counsel their patients to be more compassionate to themselves. Pam Greene, PhD, RN, Menninger’s senior vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer, tries to follow the same advice and make herself a priority during the busy holiday season. “Often, time is at a premium for mental health professionals and we have to give up something, so we eat on the run or stop exercising. We need to stick to healthy habits,” Dr. Greene says. Spending time with friends also helps her reduce stress. “I pick them up for a walk and talk and special coffee – or other treat.”

They don’t buy the holiday hype. We see and internalize the image of a frenzied holiday season, but that is not the holiday we have to have, says psychiatrist Ben Weinstein, MD, director of the Assessment Division. Dr. Weinstein, who admits he doesn’t stress over the holidays, keeps his tips short and sweet. “Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. Expect things to not go as planned and be OK with things when they do. Keeping a good sense of humor goes a long way towards enjoying the holiday.” And finally, “Appreciate the moment.”