For many Americans, the end of the year brings images of happy families gathered around a Christmas tree, big dinners of turkey and stuffing, holiday music, and cozy fires. For others, the holidays can be a much darker and more difficult time – a time of family conflict, financial strain, loneliness, grief, and seasonal affective disorder.
If you find the holidays to be an emotionally difficult time, you are certainly not alone. A Google search for “grief and the holidays” shows nearly 2.2 million results. Seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD and seasonal depression) affects 6 percent of Americans. Another 14 percent experience a lesser form of seasonal mood change known as the winter blues.
The emotional strains of the holidays and winter weather take a grave toll – during the holiday months of December and January, the CDC reports that alcohol-and-drug-induced deaths spike.
To better understand the emotional toll of the holiday season and how it affects those who are struggling with drug or alcohol dependency, we surveyed more than 2,000 people about their emotional state during the holidays. Our results indicate that the majority of Americans are either overwhelmingly or moderately stressed during the holidays. For someone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, the holidays can be an especially trying time to maintain sobriety.
The Most Dangerous Time of the Year
According to the CDC, the most dangerous times of the year for drug-and-alcohol-related deaths are December, January, and March. Nearly 91,000 deaths have been reported for the month of December since 1999.
What is causing this uptick in drug and alcohol-related deaths? We asked our survey respondents about their holiday drinking habits to better understand the seasonal trends reported by the CDC.
Holiday Alcohol Consumption
Our survey data reveals that Americans drink more during the holidays. When asked how the holidays impacted their drinking behavior, nearly half of our male and female survey respondents said they consumed the same amount of alcohol. However, about 29 percent said they drink more during the holidays.
While holiday drinking may be brought on by celebration, our survey data also indicates that holiday stressors may play a role in over-consumption and the resulting spike in drug and alcohol-related deaths.
Silent Night, Stressful Night
Our survey data reveal most of our respondents – more than 84 percent – were moderately to overwhelmingly stressed during the holidays. Does increased stress lead to more alcohol consumption? The answer is complex. The theory that people drink to reduce tension – and that life’s stressors cause increased drinking – has been around for a long time. It has also been somewhat difficult to prove.
Some individuals experience high amounts of chronic or temporary stress but choose not to drink. They may blow off steam in other ways, such as exercise. Others turn to alcohol when they become stressed. For those that relieve stress with alcohol, the effects can be detrimental. A 2011 study found that stress can reduce the intoxicating effects of alcohol – therefore individuals who drink to reduce stress actually need to drink more to feel the relaxing effects of intoxication, which may result in over-consumption.
So what is causing all the holiday stress? Our survey revealed general finances and gift-giving topped holiday stress lists. Are they linked? The average American will spend over $750 on gifts in 2016. Parents – especially those with more than one child – are often hard pressed to make their children’s holiday wishes come true. Many even go into debt to make their little ones happy. The financial pressure of gift-giving extends beyond children or even family. Gift exchanges take place among co-workers, friends, and even service providers.
Having strained family relationships was the third-most-common stressor during the holidays. Adult children are often expected to travel home for the holidays, which can reignite old negative family dynamics; children of divorced parents must often divide their time between parents. Meanwhile, those without close and loving family relationships may feel lonely.
Seasonal stressors only paint part of the dark holiday portrait. Depression also takes hold during the holiday months. While about 35 percent of those surveyed said the holidays made them happier, 25 percent reported higher levels of depression.
The most common reasons for seasonal sadness were finances, strained family relationships, missing a family member who passed away, and being alone.
The effects of depression can be detrimental on many levels, and may be a contributing factor to the rise in alcohol and drug-related deaths during the holiday season. Research has found that there is a strong link between the overconsumption of alcohol and depression.
Chronic, heavy alcohol use affects brain chemistry – more specifically, it decreases serotonin, a chemical that researchers say regulates mood, hunger, memory, sleep and many other important functions. Using alcohol to dampen feelings of depression typically results in the opposite effect – a deeper spiral into sadness. Many individuals are caught in a cycle of depression and drinking that can be difficult to escape.
Feelings of anxiety frequently accompany depression. When asked about anxiety during the holidays, almost 62 percent of respondents reported being moderately anxious – with only 18 percent saying they had no anxiety at all.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, and our survey respondents revealed that anxiety does not dissipate with the joy of the holidays. When asked what contributed to their anxiety, participants overwhelmingly pointed to finances again. Strained family relationships and a huge holiday to-do list were the next most common issues.
Holidays in Recovery
Our survey responses reveal that depression, anxiety and stress are all heightened around the holidays. For an individual facing recovery, the weight of depression, anxiety and stress seems to be heavier — ninety-four percent of our respondents in recovery reported feeling overwhelmingly or moderately stressed during the holidays.
It’s no surprise that holiday stress, depression, and anxiety are all heightened for those facing addiction or recovery. Studies have revealed that seasonal affective disorder is linked to addiction. Other co-occurring conditions (called dual diagnosis) include mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Staying Sober During the Holidays
Our research demonstrates that the holiday season presents special challenges for those in recovery. For an individual facing recovery or for family members and loved ones supporting someone in recovery, it may be helpful to understand how individuals have maintained sobriety in the face of stress, anxiety and depression brought on by the holidays.
Our survey respondents indicated that working out regularly and eating healthy were helpful methods in maintaining sobriety during the holidays. Researchers in the field support these sobriety tactics and studies have confirmed that establishing and maintaining healthy habits can be a key component of a successful recovery from drugs or alcohol.
Prioritizing sleep, spending time with family and friends, meditating, and being strict with a budget were also helpful tactics cited by survey respondents.
Take Care of Yourself This Holiday Season
As the data shows, holidays can be stressful, difficult, and even dangerous, especially when it comes to drug and alcohol use. For a safe and happy holiday, it’s important to be aware of the dangers, triggers, and strategies needed to keep anxiety, depression, stress, and addiction under control. If it all gets to be too much, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Visit us at DrugAbuse.com to find support and resources.
We surveyed 2,015 Americans about their stress, anxiety levels, and depression around the holidays. All data about deaths related to drugs and alcohol came from http://wonder.cdc.gov/. We looked at all deaths from drugs and alcohol for each month from 1999 to 2014 to calculate the deadliest months.