Eric Scalise, Ph.D.
Interviewed by Dina Jones, M.A.
We are only three days away from Christmas! How are you doing emotionally? Have you made time to rest and worship? Are you dreading what’s left of your to do list or seeing a certain family member?
75% of people experience “extreme stress” during the holidays, according to APA and shared in my interview below. If you’re in that 3 out of 4 people, what can you do right now to reclaim your Christmas season? What will you plan to do next year?
Dr. Eric Scalise is absolutely brilliant and anyone who knows him is familiar with his warmth and insight. I was so excited to interview Eric last month on holiday stress for the International Christian Coaching Association. We are sharing this interview again today, praying that Eric’s thoughtful guidance will help our readers embrace peace and freedom in the coming days.
Dina Jones: The holidays are meant to be a time of fellowship, gratitude, and for Christians, a celebration of Christ’s birth. Yet we see so many people overcome with stress and anxiety during the Christmas season. Where did we go wrong?
Eric Scalise: I think the first thing to keep in mind is when people talk about holiday stress, the Christmas season is certainly part of it, maybe the main part, but the holiday season for a lot of people beings a week or so before Halloween and goes through New Year’s. So you’re taking into consideration Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. It’s really about a two and a half month period. So I think that during the holidays, you do see increased rates of depression, certainly elevation of drinking and drugging, family and relationship conflicts increase, and a lot of people say, “well, why does that happen?” Because families are together! It often highlights disappointments, old wounds, things that maybe resurface during those times of year when family members gather and they realize that maybe the family dynamics have not changed that much. There are high expectations that maybe this year will be different, and then there’s disappointment. According to the American Psychological Association, the APA, 75% of people experience “extreme stress” during the holidays. So it really is a season of much higher stress levels for people
Dina Jones: Do you think the holiday stress epidemic is something that is getting worse each year or do you think that it has remained at the same rate?
Eric Scalise: I think part of it is related to what we’re seeing in our culture. We live in a stressed out culture, and more and more people experience stress because we’re a fast-paced, instant everything, give it to me now culture. This year, I saw Christmas decorations before Halloween. You have retailers who drive this a little bit, although having said that, one of the myths out there is that the suicide rate actually increases during that time. That’s not true. The highest rates of suicide are not in October, November, December, the last quarter, they’re more in the springtime, which is interesting. But in a general sense, I would say yes, because we live in a world that’s more stressful, don’t we. Of course, Jesus said, “In in this world there will be tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Between things like terrorism, an election cycle that is absolutely insane this year, then you throw on our culture… I see stress levels staying high and we’re not seeing any indicators that they’re going down. There is no downward trend for stress in the holiday season.
Dina Jones: What can counselors and coaches do if their clients experience an increase in anxiety and decrease in productivity as they approach the holiday season?
Eric Scalise: I think there are a number of things a coach can help clients with, especially around holiday stress. One, you can help clients understand, “listen, you’re not going to change decades of family dynamics in one thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner.” So you have to make a little bit of peace with, “hey, this is my family,” but that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to try to work on or improve relationships. So I think what it is, is helping clients have healthy expectations.
Don’t have unrealistic expectations. I think you can work with clients with helping them manage their schedule and their time. Things just seemed compressed because there’s more social events and other things on the calendar during the holidays, in addition to traveling and what people sometimes feel is obligatory to get with family. So you have to do a better job managing your schedule or your schedule will control you. Time doesn’t manage us, it takes over.
Finding or receiving the perfect gift. Again, that has to do with expectations. How your clients reframe those expectations is important, and when it comes back to schedule, you have to help clients know when and how to say no.
Setting boundaries. When you say no to something you’re saying yes to something else. When you say yes to something, you are saying no. We have to say yes and no to the right things.
Self-care is important. Because stress levels are higher, a lot of things are going on with the body. We don’t rest enough, we don’t eat well, as a matter of fact we tend to overeat; we stress eat and because there’s a lot of social activity, a lot of people consume alcohol. Alcohol related issues, especially DUIs and alcohol-related deaths, are significant during the holidays, especially New Years. Almost 6 out of every 10 fatalities around the new year weekend are alcohol related. 60% of all fatalities are alcohol related. That’s incredible.
I think you can encourage clients to be careful about isolation, because we might feel depressed, there might be a lot of things going on, and the tendency is just to pull away from everyone and everything. So we can work with clients on not overly isolating themselves, making sure it’s balanced.
Getting enough sleep is good, because if people don’t practice enough self-care, then the way a lot of people manage stress is through self-medication, whether it’s food, alcohol, or a host of other things, so just balanced living. Part of the reality, depending on where people live, is that there is less sunlight in the winter months. Seasonal affective disorder and the reduced levels of vitamin D we get because there is reduced sunlight is something that we have to pay attention to. Spending a little more time in the sun when you can is good, because sunlight does have something to do with the production of serotonin, and lower serotonin levels can lead to increased depression. Getting outside, taking a brisk walk on a regular basis can be good.
When it comes back to stress, moderating caffeine intake. I’m not saying eliminate caffeine, but caffeine is a stimulant and when we are stressed out, other stimulant hormones, predominately adrenaline and cortisol, are released in our bloodstream. So if you consume too much caffeine you’re adding a stimulant on top of a stimulant. Caffeine has a 7.5 hour half-life, which means 7.5 hours after consuming caffeine, half of the potency of that stimulant is still in operation in your body.
Dina Jones: Is there anything additional you would suggest that people in caregiving roles do over the holiday season to help themselves go into the New Year with a more solid foundation, a deeper walk with Christ, and more refreshed mindset for the journey of guiding others?
Eric Scalise: Well, the adage goes, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” so everything I just said makes sense for the coach. Coaches and counselors often are so focused on the needs and caregiving of their clients that they often neglect self-care. And if you’re around everyone else’s stress for that or two or three month period, and perhaps some of the poor decision making that clients do, then you’re living vicariously in their stressed-out worlds. You have to be intentional about setting your own boundaries and practicing your own self-care.
One of the best things to do is to have some accountability in your own life. I’m a big believer that in whatever arena we are giving, we also need to be receiving. What does that mean? Pastors need to be pastored. Teachers need to be taught. Counselors need to be counseled. Coaches need to be coached. Accountability is important – someone once told me that accountability is the breakfast of champions, but too many of us skip the most important meal of the day. I would say a coach ought to be talking to somebody during that season too just to say, “hey, you think I’m doing a good job managing myself and my schedule right now?” Allow others to have some input into your life.
Dina Jones: This is some great advice that will be helpful for coaches and counselors alike. Thank you!
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., is the former Vice President for Professional Development with the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as a current consultant and their Senior Editor. He is also the President of LIV Enterprises & Consulting, LLC, and a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 36 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, leadership development, addictions, and lay counselor training. He is an author, a national and international conference speaker, and frequently consults with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.