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Healthy relationships and the holidays

Published by: LifeWorks,

The holidays can have a significant impact on wellbeing. For some families, the holiday period brings more closeness and with it better mental and social wellbeing. For others, the holidays can be a time of immense mental stress.

With the added uncertainty of the pandemic and the associated restrictions, mental health and wellbeing around the holidays have become even more of a critical issue. Strategies for managing and maintaining wellbeing, as well as fostering healthy relationships over the holidays are more important than ever.

Wellbeing and the holidays

The holiday period usually sees people gathering together as a group. This social ritual has been found to reduce loneliness in older people and family celebrations have been shown to increase wellbeing and feelings of life satisfaction.

A study from Spain revealed that, contrary to popular belief, holidays can increase positive emotions in many people. Researchers found that when participation in family celebrations was high, there was more positive wellbeing, increased satisfaction with life, and higher perceived social wellbeing. The traditions common to many families over the holidays helped to contribute to more satisfaction with life and improved family relations.

On the flip side, the same study found that conflict during Christmas and the holidays increased negative emotions and undermined the positive effects of holiday celebrations. Life satisfaction and social wellbeing were also reduced in these cases. Researchers found that when relationships are strained, Christmas increases feelings of stress and reduces emotional well-being and life satisfaction compared to other times of the year.

The negative emotions generated by unhealthy relationships can influence physical health too. A 2019 study demonstrated that contact with in-laws during the holiday season changed the composition of the gut microbiota. For participants visiting their in-laws rather than immediate family, the prevalence of all Ruminococcus species in the gut significantly decreased, a shift that’s known to be associated with psychological stress and depression. This indicates that healthy relationships are important not just for mental wellness but also for physical wellness.

The impact of Covid-19 on healthy relationships

As well as the usual stressors associated with the holiday period, the pandemic has significantly disrupted the ways in which many families celebrate the holidays and placed a strain on many relationships. As a result of increased restrictions and lockdowns, large numbers of people have been forced to alter their holiday plans. Given the importance of the holidays for many people, increased social isolation over this period is a particular concern for mental health and wellbeing.

A 2021 study of the effects of the 2020 Christmas lockdown in Austria found that the number of people over the age of 65 experiencing depressive symptoms doubled compared to the first lockdown. Similarly, young adults under 24 showed 50% more depression symptoms and 34% more clinically relevant anxiety symptoms, thought to be partly as a result of disruptions to their normal social lives.

Parents with children have also been found to be more affected by the impact of the pandemic on their mental health than their colleagues. According to the LifeWorks Mental Health Index, parents in the UK are more than twice as likely as non-parents to have concerns about their ability to cope or be in crisis. In the US, parents are three times more likely to report the same. As holiday rituals are especially important for families with children, this group may be especially at risk of mental health issues during the holidays.

Making space for a healthier holiday period

What this adds up to is clear evidence that during the holiday period, more emphasis needs to be placed on promoting better health and wellbeing for individuals, especially those without the support of healthy relationships. Providing 24/7 access to on-demand counselling support and mental health resources is one way to reduce the negative impact of the holidays. As the evidence shows, this support needs to extend not just to individuals but to their entire families as well.

Proactive mental health support can help to provide much-needed wellness support during the holiday period. Whether individuals have a positive holiday experience or struggle with unhealthy and conflict-heavy relationships, they can benefit from holistic wellbeing guidance to foster and maintain healthier behaviours during what can be an intense time of the year.

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