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Family gatherings come with stress, panic attacks, depression

Managing Your Money
 A multi-generation family enjoying Christmas meals at home.[Getty Images

Ah, Christmas! It is here with us once again despite losing its shine over the years: It is more about conspicuous consumption than the birth of the Messiah. It is an excuse to engage in debauchery and decadence, binge drinking and merry making than memories of Joseph and Mary, the baby born in a manger, the Three Wise Men.

For some, the festive season though, is a time for culinary experiments, wetting gills with chasers and attendant constipation and headaches the following day.

But for others, festivities come with a sense of financial foreboding: the mandatory shopping, going places, visiting friends, the end of year company parties and then there are the family get-together, the Reunions that force mingling with blood relations they stayed apart from the whole year; the unwanted guests they can't chase.

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, about 38 per cent of people suffer increased stress during holidays triggered by gift giving, financial pressure, lack of time and family gatherings.

Simeon Mainye, a clinical and counselling psychologist says "entertaining, shopping, cooking, having conversations can all lead to mental anxiety or depression."

In an article titled, Mental Health and Holidays, Lucy Wanjohi, a psychologist at Chiromo Hospital Group notes that an unstable economy and financial constraints may lead to sadness as one has to be in a 'cheerful spirit' not to ruin the happiness of others.

"If you are predisposed to depression or anxiety," she writes, "it can be hard to reach out to others."

Those in blended families don't know which side of the family to visit. More so if the couples hail from different communities.

Those who intermarried from 'enemy' territory have the usual stressful fights while widows and widowers are sharply reminded of their status.

Indeed, festivities have an effect, mostly negative on mental health: Christmas and New Year, for starters come with attendant stress, anxiety disorders, worry, panic attacks, depression, fatigue and irritability.

The single, but of marriage age are ever in cat and mouse games with those bothersome aunties making the usual, probing inquiries "you decided to die with children in your knees of you have brought someone?"

There is also the odd tinge of feeling lonely in a crowd of assorted and seemingly happy cousins, the usually drunk senior bachelor uncle, the rich aunt from Melbourne, the dotting nieces, the endless extortion from distant nephews.

That rich aunt means in most gatherings there are family members living 100 metres below the poverty; who view all the hard drinks are equal to next year's school fees, but they have to appear like they're used to such extravagances.

And oh! there is the unsolicited advice on how many children to sire, the endless village gossip, and unfamiliar chores; kuchinja mbuzi, roasting its head, hooves, milking intestines, the teasing!

Some family reunions also come with memorials of dead and renewed sadness of those we lost along the way.

Indeed, the holiday period sees a sharp increase in burnout, substance abuse, sexually reckless behaviour, alcoholism, addiction to television and social media pages and for others; a wish the holiday should be over even before it starts.

Claire Omolo, a consultant psychologist at Nairobi Mental Health Services, says during the festive season it is wise to approach family reunions and cousin get-togethers with curiosity rather than surprise as it will help manage expectations.

While acknowledging that families and extended families at that, can be complicated, she says some topics like who has overstayed in the bachelor or bachelorette category are largely unavoidable, meaning prior awareness of topics that make people uncomfortable can help navigate tricky topics.

Omolo picks "marriage, religion, politics and family history as among obvious topics that can get heated" and it might be wise to "be assertive and politely express how such kinds of questions make you feel."

"Think about what to expect and how you'd like to respond," advises Omolo. "Understand your own anxieties and any unhelpful behaviours you also pose to your relatives."

Omolo says learning to regulate your own anxiety can help you understand how your family functions, be a resource to them, and in the process, strengthen and impact relationships positively.

Mainye recommends deliberately avoiding such discussions and "prepare a few neutral topics beforehand to change the topic to reduce tension, or simply decline to answer."

Mainye also recommends sharing how you feel around a particular person with a trusted friend or family member and having them stay aware in case you need 'rescuing.'

"If all else fails, the best thing is to avoid being left in a conversation with someone that triggers your anxiety. When a sensitive topic comes up, you can excuse yourself to help out elsewhere," Mainye says.

For the spouse who is introverted, hosting voluble relatives who leave them exposed, making the festive season one major pain point and source of anxiety, resentfulness besides a nagging feeling of being used.

And while all the cooking and cleaning for relatives can trigger stress, Mainye recommends planning ahead of the mess. "Make a list of all the cleaning tasks that go into get-togethers each year and delegate as much as you can in advance, from meal preparations, cooking, to washing and occupying the young children so they're out of the kitchen," Mainye says.

Omolo recommends being honest with those attending family get-together about how they can be helpful to make the day enjoyable.

She says the best way is to send out "a group message that says, 'Hey guys, looking forward to this year's get-together. I'm a little worried about chores being left to some and being stuck in the kitchen and not getting to enjoy each other. Here's a schedule of the things that we would all help with. Please let me know which ones any of you can take over."

Some people also feel overwhelmed by financial commitments that come with festivities: High expectations for shopping, new clothes, food, gifts, and other expenditure, but Omolo recommends setting a spending plan and tracking expenditures.

"There is always a cheaper option," she says. "For instance, carpooling rather than renting a car, staying at home rather than travelling, shopping early," are better ways of managing anxiety around money.

The worst thing about festivities is that they somehow force people to be somewhere, anywhere. For those without spouses or proximate families or plans, festivities bring with them a blanket of unforgiving loneliness.

To cope, Omolo recommends keeping busy with a hobby or any activity that uplifts your spirits like attending a religious service or visiting a children's home.

For widows and widowers, Wanjohi says the thoughts of memories one shared with the departed can increase feelings of loneliness and sadness during holidays.

Omolo on her part, argues that in such situations "being together with loved ones who share the grief makes things easier. Speaking to someone about your stress is part of a healthy way to manage it."

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