Holidays like Christmas and New Year festivities come with a lot of stress. What with the expectations to be somewhere, anywhere. And you must enjoy yourself. Or appear to be enjoying yourself.
Then there is all the planning and the attendant spending on the face of dwindling finances and escalating expenses.
Just lingering around the corner is the migraine-inducing January bills, including school fees, pending rent, moving houses. All these induce ‘seasonal depression’, which occurs as holidays near, resulting in mood disorders.
Those without proper rural homes suffer the annual stress of seeking alternative accommodation or sharing with relatives; a major reason for endless spousal squabbles. The breakdown of traditional family setup only made matters worse.
The holiday season is thus a time filled with sadness, self-reflection, loneliness and anxiety whose symptoms include apprehension and fear characterised by heart palpitations, sweating, stress, increased irritability besides general fatigue from inability to cope with holiday demands.
Add pressures from social media in which most people project images of doing better than others, and you have whole populations feeling like they don’t have a life!
But for Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo, finances are rarely her source of stress and neither does she face challenges of travelling, costs and timings. “I am always looking forward to a reunion with family and friends. I love my relatives, meeting them is priceless,” she says, except the year after her mum died when “we came together to celebrate Xmas and all we did was talk about her and cry.”
Her mother was the focal point in past festivities but since her death, “I have mixed feelings about the festive season. Her absence is noticeable. It is not the same.”
Millie is mostly stressed by endless holiday traffic jams but she later treats herself to adequate rest and sleep.
For musician Justina Syokau, scarcity of money and abundance of expectations are a major source of holiday stress. That the pandemic reduced open engagements only worsened matters.
“The stress I have is because I don’t have money to celebrate this holiday,” she says. “Corona affected my income.”
When finances are thin, Syokau stays indoors, but added expectations from family members can also trigger misunderstandings, which can get worse as gigs increase during holidays, meaning she only gets to rest after New Year. “Resting is important, it is my way of shedding off the stress.”
Psychologist Loice Okello warns that outside bacterial, genetic and lifestyle diseases, stress is the mother of many diseases and can have more severe effects.
Okello explains, “People get stressed over the holiday because they want to do as much as they can in a very short period of time before reporting back to work and they end up causing conflict.”
But why are Kenyans stressed by the same issues: overspending, last-minute rush?
Okello pegs it on our context and culture, which are not easy to predict.
“Kenyans have unpredictable responsibilities throughout the year, we don’t have a straightforward way of expenditure or how we do things. The major source of stress is finances because we do not have an economy where basic needs are not a struggle,” she says.
Tamara Ochieng, also a psychologist, says, “Some people may feel anxiously depressed around holidays due to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), thus resulting in excessive drinking, overeating and insomnia.”
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include tiredness, fatigue, depression, crying spells and mood swings, irritability, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, decreased activity levels and overeating with associated weight gain.
Ochieng also lists unrealistic expectations and excessive commitments as another set of contributing factors. Others are impulse indulgences, competition to outdo others, poor planning, peer pressure and taking loans, hiring cars to fund vacations and stretching finances via short-term ‘retail therapy.’
Holidays also come with loneliness after breaking away from colleagues, neighbours and friends and festivities are also ruined by recent trauma, life changes or concurrent illness.
People who do not view themselves as depressed may develop stress responses marked by increased headaches, excessive drinking, overeating and insomnia during the holiday season.
“We can be looking all successful and happy on the outside and still be overwhelmed and dying inside,” says Susan Kibe, a psychologist and counsellor.
She adds that financial demands associated with demand for holiday festive needs usually trigger fear, anxiety, phobia, stress, depression, and mental health problems.
Stressful family situations and illness in the family are also predisposing factors and balancing the demands of shopping, parties, family obligations, and house guests may contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and increased tension.
Women get stressed more as they put in feelings while men flow freely with the tide of events.
“Women always want perfection,” says Okello, “and depending on the kind of plan they have, women will look for more details and better results than men.”
Kibe says holiday stress affects women, men and children alike, considering there is serious demand and little money to afford the supply from breadwinners.
This always has negative impact as failure to meet financial demands and resultant obligations often leads to family breakdowns, separations, divorce.
So, what to do?
Well, for starters, there are hobbies; sports, games, movies, books, socialising with family and friends.
But as for pressure to go upcountry, Okello says mobile money has come to the rescue and “people can make calls and send finance rather than travel.”
Of nosy aunties who pester and cause untold stress on people’s marital status, Okello says, “The aunties who ask questions are not nosy, they are in their developmental stage and they are looking back at the results of their lives and those of their siblings. All they think about is babies, husbands, returns and wives.”
To make the most out of festivities, she says, people should do what they can the best way they can and if that means shelving travelling upcountry and not going out for parents with schoolchildren, so be it.
Kibe advises that people do things they enjoy the most besides indulging in fresh air, sunshine and stress relieving nutrition normally sacrificed during busy work times.
“Don’t over think about how, when and where you will get rent and school feels in January when the December holiday is over,” she says.
Those suffering from holiday anxieties should set realistic goals and expectations, reach out to friends, share tasks, find inexpensive enjoyments, help others.
But other people also experience post-holiday sadness after New Year, which “can result from built-up expectations and disappointments from the previous year, coupled with stress and fatigue,” says Dr Rupen Haria, a pharmaceutical distributor.
Dr Haria says a healthcare professional may perform lab or other tests and a full history of symptoms is likely to provide clues that can help distinguish a mild case of the holiday blues from sad or a more serious and chronic depressive disorder.
He adds that phototherapy in the form of light boxes lit for 30 minutes daily in the morning and evening also helps, besides using medications for seasonal affective disorder.